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Environmental bill comes due, and it must be paid

Arabian Sea
REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
Habitat, fresh water, the health of the oceans are all in decline.

Gunmen break into your home and threaten your family. You hand over whatever they ask for, whatever it takes to head off disaster. An immediate, serious threat wonderfully concentrates the mind. The issues are clear, your response immediate and the results soon apparent. In contrast, complex threats are confusing: What is the problem, what’s at risk, how long do we have to figure this out? Can we afford to fix it? Once we realize we’re dealing with something very dangerous we can’t delay – we must act to save ourselves.

The results of humanity’s war on the environment have taken decades to emerge while irreversible damage has been done. Within the past eight months a series of authoritative reports have spelled out how our societies are destroying the earth systems we depend upon for survival. The latest is the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which confirms that a mass extinction of plant and animal species is well under way. Habitat, fresh water, the health of the oceans are all in decline. Actionable information is available; our response inadequate. The question is why?

Clearly many still refuse to believe the science and the evidence of change right in front of their eyes. Perhaps that explains why last month GOP members of the Minnesota House of Representatives voted against a declaration acknowledging that human activities have caused climate change. And why clean energy policy was thrown under the train by GOP Senate leadership. Maybe no one noticed that changing climate conditions have left many Midwest farms either underwater or trying to dry out.

Some apparently believe their wealth insulates them from disaster. They are sadly mistaken. Others simply miscalculate. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler says not to worry; real consequences of climate change are 50-75 years away. But 50-75 years is within the lifespan of today’s toddlers — and, for most of us, our children are a top priority. Maybe Wheeler has trouble with the arithmetic. Or perhaps he figures policymakers have 50 to 75 years to begin fixing things; it’s a total misunderstanding of the immense task at hand.

Another reason for delaying action hinges on cost. Can we afford clean energy? How will the economy handle reductions in how much we consume and throw out? The abandonment of fossil fuel resources and power plants? What about jobs and investments? Trillions of dollars? How can we take that on? Good questions, but in a way the answer is simple: The costs are whatever it takes to salvage a world we can survive on.

Bruce D. Snyder
Bruce D. Snyder
A more involved answer involves how we determine the real costs of what we purchase.

We’ve been told that our planetary resources (fossil fuels, clean air and water, etc.) are cheap or free and unlimited. In our defense it took time and research to reveal the hidden costs: crop failures; toxic oceans; billions in storm and wildfire damage; impaired health; millions of climate refugees; oh, and coastal real estate – potentially trillions in losses. Costs we didn’t figure on and would rather forget about. Unfortunately, it’s no longer a matter of what we are willing to pay. It is the matter of paying whatever it takes to save ourselves.

Our use of natural resources represents unpaid purchases. We took possession of the coal, the oil, the forests, the land. We used and degraded them; they can’t be returned, and now the bill is due. You break it, you buy it. Payment is not optional; we must pay whatever it takes or risk losing everything.

We have accepted and assumed that year over year there will be more vehicles, appliances, war machines, devices, hospitals, homes, buildings, data centers, etc. And we are stunned when the consequences of advanced environmental destruction become too obvious and severe to ignore. We are not psychologically or socially prepared for this. Solutions, such as they are, will be expensive and will require a dramatic reimagining of our futures. This bill must be paid. Interest is adding up quickly. The price is whatever it takes.

Bruce D. Snyder, M.D., FAAN, is a member of Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, an organization of Minnesota health care professionals concerned with the health impacts of climate change.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 06/19/2019 - 09:07 am.

    I can assure you, the devastation of the land and waters, the extermination of pollinators, has been a bipartisan thing. Republicans may grandstand about climate change, but Democrats have been mostly silent about corporate agribusiness spraying millions of gallons of glyphosate, atrazine etc chemical all over the state every year, the setting of millions of miles of drain tile sending millions of pounds of topsoil and chemicals down the river. Atrazine and nitrates in the aquifers is a Dem and Repub thing.

    As example, the DFL and GOP in Minnesota have stood together to allow FOREIGN corporations to mine copper/nickel in sulfates in northern Minnesota, 20 years of mining for 10+ generations of pollution, a classic banana republic plunder, pollute and run operation. That is profound intergenerational injustice, but leadership of both parties act as if this is progress, this is what the economy demands, this is what has to be done, there is no other way. Even our Dem governor Walz says we have to do this if we want and solar panels and wind towers… see, we are reducing CO2 while we plunder and pollute. It is like extortion, if you want nice things you have to ruin the land and waters, exterminate pollinators.

    Acting like only half of America is responsible for this is merely exacerbating it.

  2. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/19/2019 - 04:40 pm.

    I agree. I propose we build green-energy power plants like nuclear. Because, as the author states, “our societies are destroying the earth systems we depend upon for survival.”

    We must act now. Build more clean nuclear power plants.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 06/19/2019 - 08:09 pm.


      I always ask those who call for building more nuclear power plants, show us how to build one that uses the waste of existing nuclear plants, making a waste that is no longed toxic, that costs much less than the 30+ billion $s it currently costs to build nuclear power, on a scale that is truly economic.

      Otherwise, I call for a radical, intentional reduction of energy use in a society scale.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/20/2019 - 03:34 pm.


      While it looks good in print, decades of “reduce your power consumption” chants have produced little or nothing. In the mean time, how bout we build nuclear power plants until we get our act straight.

      Germany is shutting down perfectly good nuclear power plants to appease environmentalists, and this will add to their C02 emissions. A number of plants in the US are being shut down prematurely with the same result. Keeping working plants open comes with very little cost.

      The costs of global warming are incredibly high. The costs of nuclear power (much less than your 30B number cited) are small in comparison.

      China has about 20 nuclear power plants under construction. They will lead the world in reducing emissions.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 06/20/2019 - 06:30 pm.


        Most of the nuclear plants in America were meant to be closed after 40 years, but their life keeps getting extended by state and fed governments. New plants cost at least 30 billion, which is why few have been built and some have stopped being built – because they do not really pay for themselves.

        Meanwhile estimates for the clean up of fukushima are at about 300 billion and climbing, likely a trillion dollars – if they ever clean it up.

        So now imagine building hundreds more nuc plants, and then maybe WWIII happens and….

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/21/2019 - 02:20 pm.

    I don’t know where you are getting your numbers, but they are higher than any I have ever heard.

    It costs $4B to build a nuclear power plant. Cleanup costs for Fukushima are $50B or so. Japan’s total earthquake/disaster costs are $250B.

    Lacking pressure from environmentalists, China will lead the world in nuclear power, thus lowered emissions, thus cleaning up the environment.

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