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Why Wealthier Is Healthier: Congress, Carbon and the Poor

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Friday, April 24, 2009

Why Wealthier Is Healthier: Congress, Carbon and the Poor

April 24, 2009

The cherry tree and dogwoods along my driveway are in full bloom. The hundred tulips I planted on either side of our front door make a startling display against the dark brick and wood door. There are robins preparing a nest in my neighbor’s huge holly bush. Meanwhile in the backyard, a cardinal flits about pausing once in a while for no discernible reason, but with breathtaking beauty on a pot of bright green chives. From my third floor office our town, one of Washington’s crowded inner suburbs, glistens with spring green, white, pink, and lavender.

I am reminded of visiting Old Sturbridge Village on a similarly gorgeous spring day. As I admired the heavily treed village, I commented to a docent, “So this must be pretty much how things looked in the early 1800s?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” he replied. “It would not have looked anything like this. There would not have been any trees like these for miles. They would all have been cut down for building and fuel.  And the air would have reeked of smoke since there would have been at least one wood fire in every house.”

Even in a prosperous village in 1800 most people just eked by. The environmental niceties I enjoy looking out my window and the fresh air wafting in are luxury goods, the result of our wealth. And we enjoy that wealth in large measure because we have access to inexpensive, reliable energy.

Think about the two ends of the spectrum. Wherever people have abundant, inexpensive energy—most of Europe and North America—there is prosperity, which leads to a clean environment. But in places where the only available energy is from burning biomass fuels—wood or dried dung for the most part—there is subsistence farming, grinding poverty, disease, and environmental degradation.

Bjørn Lomborg in his book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming writes that in India, “For many… women, searching for fire wood costs three hours each day, as they sometimes walk more than six miles per day. It also causes excess deforestation.” Wealthier is healthier for people and for the environment.

The WeGetIt! Declaration is a simple statement of environmental stewardship from a faithful biblical point of view: “God said it. We get it. They need it. Let’s do it.”   I am proud to have been one of the original signers particularly because of the common sense care for the poor indicated by the words, “They need it.” The declaration states:

With billions suffering in poverty, environmental policies must not further oppress the world’s poor by denying them basic needs. Instead, we must help people fulfill their God-given potential as producers and stewards.

This is in marked contrast to nearly every other environmental doctrine. Rather than seeing people as “producers and stewards,” most environmental thinking sees people as users and polluters.  And, while it may not be consciously designed this way, proposed environmental legislation currently before Congress follows this principle, seeing people as the problem, not the solution.

In his March 25, 2009 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, IRD adjunct fellow and spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, Dr. E. Calvin Beisner addressed this issue and its impact on the poor. Focusing on proposed legislation to tax carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which are the result of burning fuel (and breathing, but that is a separate matter), Beisner told the subcommittee:

If we tax CO2 emissions, whether directly or via cap-and-trade, we raise the price of energy and so the prices of all things made and transported by energy–which is essentially everything. This is particularly devastating to the poor, for whom energy constitutes a higher proportion of spending than for others.

Any tax on CO2 would result in higher prices for gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and electricity, which is, for the most part, generated by burning fossil fuels. As a result, milk, bread, meat, cheese, clothing, shoes and anything else that must be manufactured and transported will also cost more. And the poor will bear the heaviest burden of higher prices.

What about alternative energy sources? Beisner pointed out:

No alternative fuels can compete at present with fossil fuels for price. To compel their use in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is therefore to raise the price of energy and to harm the poor.

Gasoline has already been over four dollars a gallon. Who suffered the most, the rich or the poor? What would happen if it went to eight dollars a gallon? As Dr. Beisner said at the conclusion of his House testimony:

Until someone can justify such a regressive tax and its fatal consequences, I can only conclude that it is unethical, and that we are morally obligated not to impede access by the poor to abundant, inexpensive fossil fuels.

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