Sunday, February 14, 2016

Freedom, Responsibility, and the Price of Fireworks (and Carbon)

A week or so ago I wondered aloud on social media about the carbon footprint of the Super Bowl. Just how much fossil fuel ends up being burned in order to bring that annual spectacle into existence? Of course, I wasn’t really expecting an answer. I was simply hoping to get the question percolating in people’s minds as they watched. Despite its rhetorical nature, though, my question does indeed have an answer. It would just take a whole lot of work for us to arrive at a reasonable estimation of it.

Not surprisingly, I was taken to task for my elitist attitude. After all, I enjoy a good film festival now and then, which has a carbon footprint, and my blog resides on servers that require a lot of energy to power up and keep cool. What’s the difference? We’re all creating carbon dioxide with our various endeavors and diversions. This person here sits in front of a television screen watching a football game. That person there sits in front of a computer screen blogging. Different strokes for different folks. This is a free country, right? Indeed, this is a question that touches on some of our most deeply held beliefs about freedom and personal responsibility. Before I delve into all of that, however, let me tell you a story.

When I was a child my family vacationed over the week of the Fourth of July at a little resort on one of the scenic rivers in southern Missouri. Most of the guests returned year after year so it was a week spent getting reacquainted with old friends. We rode horseback. We played cards and tennis and miniature golf. Mostly, though, we went swimming and floating in the river, or hiking and exploring along its rocky banks. On the evening of the Fourth, however, we all gathered down on the riverbank for a makeshift fireworks display put on by one of the families. And as the show progressed to bigger and louder and more colorful pyrotechnics, so the good-natured jeering of the beer-drinking adults grew more and more boisterous. Whooshhh…Pow! “Yeah, that was probably a couple of bucks!” someone would feign dismissiveness as the pace of the ignitions picked up. And so the ritual would proceed. Whooshhh…BAM! “There goes five dollars!” someone else would exclaim. The jeering and the laughter became contagious. Whooshhh… KerPOW…Bang, Bang, Bang! “Ooohhhhh! That had to have been a ten-spot!” And so it would go until the last ordnance was fired, its monetary value assessed, and the good-natured jeering gave way to sincerely appreciative applause.

The next day, however, would always be a little bit sad down by the river. The remnants of the previous evening’s festivities would be littering the beach and floating in the water. Half-burned cardboard tubes, tinfoil rocket fins, and plastic propeller blades from the various projectiles could be found here and there and far downstream. It took a while for the river to clean itself and return to more pristine condition.

In economic circles, such litter is referred to as an externality – negative in this case. The river was diminished by some amount that was not accounted for in the price of each of the fireworks. There was no clean-up crew that accompanied those fireworks, nor was there any credit given to those river visitors whose aesthetic enjoyment of the scenic beauty was decreased by all of the trash that seemed to be everywhere one might look. But that’s not all. There were chemicals and heavy metals in those fireworks that disbursed on the air and dissolved into the water. Such potentially harmful pollutants eventually worked their way into the bodies of living beings, with very difficult to calculate effects resulting over time.

This is a free country, and, depending on local ordinances, we have the freedom to shoot off fireworks. But we also recognize that freedom comes with responsibility. We can’t shoot fireworks at people; we can’t burn down the property of others, etc. And if we really take seriously the responsibility that goes hand in hand with our freedom, we shouldn’t diminish the health or aesthetic appeal of the environment around us either. Or if we do we should pay the community for whatever damage we have caused. But how exactly should we quantify this negative impact on the environment so that we might add this onto the cost of the fireworks? And what should be done with the extra revenue that is generated. Here’s a public health report that might stimulate thinking in this regard.

Which brings me back to the Super Bowl. Nowhere to be found on the balance sheets of any of the NFL teams, the league itself, the product manufacturers and suppliers, the entertainment companies, advertisers or television studios is a line item related to the incremental cost to the environment of the fossil fuel burned in order to bring the entire spectacle to life Рthe carbon tax, if you will. In other words, the incremental cost of a degraded environment vis-à-vis climate change represented by the carbon footprint of the Super Bowl is borne by all of us in some way, but especially by those who live close to sea level or in other ecosystems that have begun to feel the effects of climate change already in the form of drought, destructive rains and winds, the spread of tropical disease, and extinction of local species.

So, how would we even begin to calculate what that carbon tax should be? Should it be a proportional share of whatever amount is sufficient to fund efforts to remediate the impact of climate change? Or is it sufficient that the line item merely serve to nudge energy users away from fossil fuels and toward alternative energy sources? It is a complicated question, but one very worthy of our consideration.

If we were to account for the externality of the carbon dioxide that we create, if we were to have fossil fuel use priced appropriately, then we would be appropriately balancing our freedom to burn whatever fuel we might choose with our responsibility to reimburse others for whatever harm that we cause. Such a carbon tax or surcharge, if implemented, would prompt companies to either find alternative ways to power their operations or else pass the additional cost onto those who buy their products or services.

Think about how this would ripple through the economy for the better. Companies that continue to fuel their operations with greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels will find their products relatively more expensive than their competitors who utilize alternative fuels. No longer will fossil fuel-powered operations be subsidized by all of us, to the detriment of all of us. Think about how this would impact the Super Bowl. Unless it could be transitioned to alternative fuels then maybe the entertainment would need to be scaled back. Maybe the media coverage would need to be stripped of some of its pizazz. Maybe those commercials would become too expensive to make and the airtime charged too expensive to purchase. Maybe the extravaganza would need to be televised as pay-per-view if it ended up being too big to be underwritten by advertising fees alone.

But why only pick on the Super Bowl? Film-making would also need to adapt to the new right-pricing of fossil fuel use. Production would either need to be revised or else ticket prices and what have you would need to go up. And if all the companies that keep the internet up and running can’t find a way to power up and cool all those file servers with renewable fuels, then maybe all of us bloggers and video watchers and web-surfers will need to just pony up a little bit of money for the freedom to do so.

One thing is certain though. Once we have fossil fuel use appropriately priced we really will be able to say: “This person here sits in front of a television screen watching a football game. That person there sits in front of a computer screen blogging. Different strokes for different folks. This is a free country, right?” Yes, and it will still be a free country. It will also be a more responsible country.

New Year fireworks in Valparaíso, Chile by Difuntoman via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

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