A medical study concludes that clean air extends lifespans:
On average, particulate matter levels fell from 21 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 14 micrograms per cubic meter in the cities studied. At the same time, Americans lived an average 2.72 years longer.
“We saw that communities that had larger reductions in air pollution on average had larger increases in life expectancies,” said the study’s lead author, C. Arden Pope III, a Brigham Young epidemiologist.
One of the big economic problems with environmentalism is that the benefits are diffuse but the costs local. In other words, it costs you money to clean up the stuff your generating station is spewing out, but the benefits of that clean-up are spread over thousands or even millions of people. Studies like this are an attempt to quantify the gains of environmental improvement as effectively as industry lobbyists have quantified the costs.
Around the world, the United States is a leader in environmental technology. The reason for that is government regulation. It's government regulation, after all, that created the need for clean technology. Power companies don't capture fly-ash because the market demanded it; they do it because the government said do it or we'll shut you down.
And, as the above report shows, cleaning up the egregious industrial pollution that was the norm 50 years ago has paid a huge return. (Here's a 1973 study positing a more than 500% return on investment.) It's inevitable that modernizing countries around the world, with their emerging middle classes, will buy the technology developed here to clean up their own pollution problems. Which means we've benefited twice from environmental regulation: once in the health and well-being of our own society, and once in the development of a whole new industry.
Going forward, however, the returns we can expect from further industrial regulation are likely to diminish. The pollution problems we're likely to benefit similarly from cleaning up now have less to do with industry and more to do with our own behavior; we consume too much, and the only way to change that without diminishing our quality of life is to get smart in small ways across our whole society.
Changes can be made in hundreds of millions of lives a few different ways. We could, for example, establish an enormous environmental police state regulating how many miles everyone drives a month. We could ration gasoline and other energy sources. Or we could raise the cost of energy to a degree that changes the market while letting people decide for themselves how they're going to adjust.
And that's what we should do. We should -- listen for the conservative howling -- raise taxes so much that continuing life as we know it hurts. I've said it before and I'll say it here: there is no aspect of American life that wouldn't be improved by making gasoline expensive -- electricity, coal and natural gas, too. It would cut down on waste, inspire us to build our cities in ways that are vastly less destructive, and unleash the marketplace to develop cleaner alternatives.
It would, it's true, put a short-term drag on the economy -- and right this moment, it's hard to justify doing anything that adds drag to the economy. But there's probably never going to be a "right" moment to raise taxes the way I want to raise energy taxes, and there's virtue in doing what needs to be done now, when demand and prices are already depressed.
We understand and can quantify the health benefits. We know the direction the world is going, and understand that being a producer in a large and inevitable industry is better than being a consumer. We know that it's easier to maintain a low level of consumption than it is to cut-back on an already established, high level of consumption.
So my question is: Why not now? Why not increase the gas tax -- just to pick one -- by 25 cents a gallon this year, and another 25 cents a gallon every year for the next decade? Carve it in stone so everyone buying a car knows what's coming, so the inventors can invent with confidence, so the urban planners can start making the changes we need to build post-automotive cities? Why not change the world starting today?
Now, I'd argue, is the perfect time.