Even conventional economists nowadays acknowledge that market ‘externalities’ should be paid for, to ‘internalise’ their costs: so, for instance, both the nuclear industry and the fossil fuel industry should be forced – wherever, whenever, and however feasible — to pay the full (including the future) costs of the safe disposal of their wastes.
The implications of this simple and obvious statement are colossal. In the case of the nuclear industry, there is good reason to believe that it would finish the industry off: with uranium supplies fast-depleting, there is now a real question as to whether there is even enough usable nuclear energy left in the world to clean up the mess of the nuclear industry, past, present and future (for back-up for this claim, see www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/nuclear/Nuclear.pdf). The British government for one is at least pretending that in future the nuclear industry will have to include the cost of dealing with its waste within its business model (see e.g. http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/news/article.html?in_article_id=428999&in_page_id=2 ); whereas in the case of gas, oil and coal there is still no such pretence, even (fashionable blather about ‘clean coal’ notwithstanding). It simply strikes one as obvious that the nuclear industry should clean up its waste: why has the obvious parallel with the fossil fuel industries never been seriously explored? Let’s explore it a little: In the case of the companies that mine fossil-fuels, there should be a very substantial (and retrospective) windfall tax to cover the vast adaptation and mitigation costs of manmade climate change.
This proposal would not only be just; it would also play the vital role of hugely incentivising the development of renewable energy — a point to which I will return momentarily.
It might be objected that applying this tax retrospectively would not be just, in that fossil fuel companies/suppliers have not always known about the polluting effect of their product. ‘Unfortunately’ (as noted by Richard Bramhall, in the analogous case of the asbestos industry, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,2240289,00.html ), ignorance in this regard is no defence in the eyes of the law. Nor of course is it a defence that some fossil-fuel companies have been wilfully funding climate-change-sceptical thinktanks, in order to try to make it appear as though maybe they are NOT responsible for polluting (with CO2) our eco-system to the dangerous point now reached… (see e.g. http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/exxon-secrets ). The windfall tax that I am envisaging should be backdated at the very least to the time when a strong scientific consensus was reached on fossil fuels’ guiltiness in the case of Carbon Dioxide versus Humankind: say 1990, to give a very conservative estimate which can therefore hardly be disputed.
What renewables desperately need is fair costing of their rivals. Forcing the fossil fuel industries to pay for the vast greenhouse-gas pollution that they have caused might just bring about the green energy revolution that we desperately need, if our civilisation is to survive and flourish. Especially if the tax revenues concerned were put into R&D and subsidies for tidal, wave, solar, etc. …
It is astonishing really that the simplicity of the idea that motivates this article has never before, as far as my researches have shown, been applied directly to the most pressing case of all. If you make a mess, you should clean up after yourself – every child knows that. Our greenhouse-gas-full atmosphere is simply the biggest and most dangerous mess that corporations have ever made. Wouldn’t it be sweet, if the windfall profits of the Earth’s biggest polluters could be put to work to prevent the very climate catastrophe that their extraction and burning of fossil fuels has come close to bringing about?