Climate progress would reduce deaths caused by air pollution

It seems to be getting tougher to breathe. Schools were shut down in Rybnik, Poland, the first week of January because the pollution posed such a risk to children. Warsaw residents inhale the equivalent of 1,000 cigarettes a year. An estimated 45,000 Poles will die prematurely this year due to air pollution, The New York Times reported.

The nation burns a lot of coal, providing 85 percent of its electricity and 43 percent of its heat. When brutal cold swept into the country in early January, home heating units went into overdrive, and many of them are hugely inefficient.

Sadly, Poland is not the only country where breathing is killing people. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that 90 percent of the people on the planet live in areas with unsafe air pollution levels. If you spend any time looking at the international pages of newspapers and magazines, you’ve probably seen people in Beijing and Delhi walking around with protective masks. The World Bank estimates that air-related deaths cost $225 billion a year. That’s serious money.

The good news is that if the United States and other nations make progress on climate change, we can count on simultaneous progress on cleaning up the air we breathe. As we burn less coal and other fossil fuels, fewer of us will die prematurely. We’ll miss less work. Fewer kids will suffer from asthma. As Dr. Phil Landrigan of Mount Sinai Medical School told Time, “You make the case on public-health grounds, you make a moral case, you make a business case.”

China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has heard the message. The government recently announced that it will invest $360 billion over the next four years to develop clean energy sources. Every hour another wind turbine goes into motion.

That $360 billion should create 13 million jobs. Shouldn’t our country be doing the same thing? Are we really going to try to reopen closed coal mines?

One way or another, the United States needs to speed up the inevitable transition from dirty to clean energy. We should be moving at the speed of a baseball, not a softball.

The smartest way to pick up the pace is to put a price on carbon, and economists say, by a lopsided margin, that a carbon fee or tax is the quickest, simplest, most efficient vehicle. If Congress adopts a fee, then all of us will have a greater incentive to burn up less carbon. That’s the beauty of our free market system.

No, Congress doesn’t like fees or taxes. But how is Congress going to cover the costs of an enormous infrastructure program and tax cuts? Sure, we could raise the debt ceiling. But most Americans believe that the national debt is high enough--too high, in fact. On January 24 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the national debt will climb by another $8.6 trillion over the next 10 years.

Assume a carbon fee of $35 per metric ton, increasing at four percent (plus inflation) a year. After ten years we’d have about $2 trillion to help pay for the things Congress and the new president want to do. Some of that $2 trillion should go back to those with modest incomes to compensate them for slightly higher energy costs.

History tells us that a president’s first year is the best time to take bold action. All of us, particularly our business leaders, need to tell Congress that a carbon fee is the common-sense solution to polluted air and all the problems caused by climate change.