Honest Accounting of Pollution’s True Costs

Exxon Valdez Runs Aground

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Twenty years ago, the Exxon Valdez plowed onto Bligh Reef in a pristine Alaskan inlet and let loose 11 million gallons of crude oil while the captain slept and the Coast Guard ignored the ship’s course.

The deadly viscous goo devastated fish, birds and other wildlife. It also seared our consciousness as a symbol of environmental negligence and brought calls for greater safety measures to protect our fragile world.

Two decades later, our global climate is perilously warming, and our economy has run aground as its captains ignored the dangers in a binge of profiteering and risky economic shortcuts. Our poor treatment of the environment and neglectful stewardship of the economy share a genesis. Both result from a fixation on short-term financial results, our stubborn denial of consequences, and a refusal to prudently protect our future.

As the Obama administration’s stimulus package makes clear, the two issues also are joined in remedy.

If we take the steps now to reverse the environmental footprint from burning the fossil fuels that are heating our planet, we can protect our world and prepare our economy for a new green age. The word "sustainability" may have political overtones, but its relevance is simple: It means changing how we live now to assure we have a future.

To sustain ourselves, we need to transform the energy system that fuels our industrial society, as we alter course in the priorities and principles that guide our economic and environmental decisions. In short, we have to start investing in the future rather than borrowing on it and hoping that our children can pay the bills.

We can do so through a series of practical, realistic steps, already embraced by many of today’s most thoughtful business leaders. Those steps include honest accounting that factors into financial decisions the real cost of air and water pollution, the real effects of global warming, and the real limits on precious resources such as water and forests. A national carbon cap-and-trade system that reduces global warming pollution and puts a price on carbon emissions is a big step in that direction.

Other steps include enacting new standards that reward businesses for sustaining, rather than exhausting, our world. Utilities should be rewarded for helping their customers use energy more efficiently, not punished. No longer should business strategies and board meetings center only on what makes the most money in the next quarter. Shareholders must demand transparency in carbon-intensive projects such as new coal-fired power plants, and investors must shift investments toward clean technology, which will be more profitable in the long run.

We must also enact smart government policies that send clear market signals to encourage clean solutions with a long-term perspective. Congressional proposals to set aggressive goals to cut electricity demand by 15 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 are on the right path, as are tax structures that discourage high-polluting technologies and reward clean energy and green job creation.

But we must also reform our broken Securities and Exchange Commission, which has utterly failed in its duty to protect investors and maintain fair, orderly markets. Such reform must include a requirement for all publicly-traded companies to report on their risks and opportunities from climate change, water shortages, and other social and environmental challenges they face. This will enable investors to make informed decisions and direct their dollars toward a new green economy.

The Exxon Valdez tragedy on March 24, 1989, brought some reforms, but not enough. Improvements in spill response and tanker design are overshadowed by calls to "drill, baby, drill" in even more environmentally sensitive areas and to extract dirty oil from Canada’s tar sands, which have two to three times the carbon footprint as conventional oil production.

Though we are in turbulent waters, it is not too late to chart a new course, one that values the long-term prosperity of the planet and its people.

With $83 billion pegged for clean technology, the economic recovery package — the largest green investment in the nation’s history — offers promise to help right the ship. Honest accounting of pollution’s true costs, coupled with new expectations for business, and smart policies to stimulate long-term, clean energy solutions, will further guide us toward safe waters.