Reply to ASK-AN-EARTH-SCIENTIST

Subject: Costs of Pollution

I am involved in a debate about environmental conditions. My side argues that atmospheric and environ- mental conditions "aren't that bad". My side believes that current and future environmental regulations should be based on cost and not on how much help the environment actually needs. Do you have any sources I can find or evidence supporting my side of the arguement? It seems like everything is for protecting instead of cost effectiveness.


    The questions you pose regarding environmental regulation and their associated costs are good ones. In general, we deal only with the scientific issues in this web forum, as this is a department in which basic scientific research (as opposed to policy issues, costs assessments, and other social issues) is conducted. I do, however, have some general comments that may or may not help you make your case:
    In general, "costs" of anything are poorly defined entities that can be manipulated by any side in an argument to make a cost-benefit analysis support their position. As a scientist, I believe that ultimate understanding of a situation and a complete assessment of all variables gives you the fairest assesment of the impact upon society of any situation. Impacts can be upon quality of life, health, costs, etc.. With environmental "situations", there are typically short-range and long-range effects of any "perturbed" environment. Without placing a value judgement on this statement, I do believe that most businesses confronted with assessing economical impacts of their potentially deleterious activities toward the environment take a very short range scope into consideration: to wit, a dioxin or PCB spill can be considered from a variety of costs perspectives, ranging from the cost of cleanup itself to the long-term costs to the community in terms of persistent health problems, diminshed productivity at work, etc.. that exist because of the spill. These latter things are costs, but may not be immediately of concern to a polluting entity. By the same reasoning, society has to ask itself, is it entirely the "fault" of the polluters (and therefore their fiscal responsibility) that pollution and environmental degredation occur, or is it partly the fault of society for demanding the goods and services produced by the polluting entity. In the case of the PCB spill above, how many people realize that a major use of this material is as a dieltric in common resistors on high voltage electrical transmission lines. All who use electricity are partially responsible for these highly efficient resistors to be in a place where they could potentially cause an environmental problem. On a grander scale, who will pay for any ill-effects of potential global warming from society's excessive overuse of fossil fuels that puts large excessess of CO2 into the atmosphere? Well, we all will likely pay in some way, although some more than others (people in coastal zones would obviously be worse off than someone living at higher elevation when and if the polar ice caps partially melt, although we will all feel the effects if global weather patterns shift as predicted.
    I suppose my view on the situation, as a scientist, is that environemtal problems are real, and they have real short and long term costs. The question is not really whether or not we should let a company pollute because it is bad for business if they have to pay the costs to prevent pollution, but rather how will society in general deal with the costs, and how can they be fairly distributed amongst everyone involved. Not protecting the environment because it is costly is very unwise. It is as if to say I'm not going to set my broken arm with a cast because it costs too much. These issues of environmental quality cut right to the core of global health and the welfare of all living organisms. What needs to be done to both protect the environment and the viability of industry and commerce is to all pay the price, in fair proportion, for the life we choose to lead, the latter of which is based largely (for western society) upon synthetic materials and environmentally dangerous practices.

Dr. Ken Rubin, Assistant Professor
Department of Geology and Geophysics
University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI 96822


Return to the Ask-An-Earth-Scientist © page