Externalities and the real cost of how we live

Kirsty Ruddock is the Principal Solicitor at the Environment Defenders Office. She was at Sydney University Yesterday talking to law students who wanted to pursue a career in social justice.

She quickly crushed any naive hopes of being a championing environmental lawyer “sorry to crush your dreams, but most environmental lawyers end up working for the bad guys – BHP, mining companies… and if you want to work for the good guys? Well, you kind of have to be me. There aren’t many jobs going either.”

There might be more than Kirsty expects if we change the way we look at the real impacts of our activities and start calculating costs in a more realisitic way.

Externalities. This one, seemingly banal word has let us get away with pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, blasting huge holes into the earth and leaving vast areas barren, polluting our precious water supplies and displacing countless communities.

Externalities. Externalities means that we price a car at $40,000 but we pretend the emissions do not have a cost, we pretend the metal carcass at the end of its 10 year (if we’re lucky) life does not have a cost, we pretend the roads that we drive it on do not have a cost.

I would never advocate for burning books, but I’d happily burn the last page in the E section of the dictionary to get rid of that word (could also get rid of other less than ideal things like exercise, exorcism and exile). Point is, if we could get our head around the fact that externalities are a fiction to let the big guys off the hook, there would be a lot more work for environmental lawyers.

Kirsty told us that Australia exports 27% of the world’s traded coal and we’re growing that market. Apparently, if we scaled back  or ceased our coal production right now, no other country in the world would be positioned to replace it. This is fundamentally important because what it really means is that Australia could be a key player in a global shift towards clean energy.

Climate change is an ethical issue because its impacts are going to be disproportionately spread and will hit hardest where the communities are least responsible for the problem and least able to adapt and mitigate its impact.

The Torres Straite is a good example of one such region where six of the islands face regular inundation. Located between Papua New Guinea and the tip of Cape York, this community faces a whole raft of problems anyway – lower health outcomes, persistent underemployment, lower educational level etc. – are now facing the added pressure of dealing with climate change. More and more they are dealing with huge tidal surges, king tides which threaten the infrastructure that supports the community. The Federal Government is not interested in providing the much needed $20 million to protect even just one of the islands – Saibai – from the worst of the coastal inundation and erosion.

Indigenous Australians are another group that have historically lived sustainably and contributed very little to man made climate change, yet will have to bear much of the burden of adapting to its effects. When Kirsty talked about climate justice she’s looking at all those “externalities” that we do not factor into the costs of our activities – what are the social impacts, what are the health impacts, what are the impacts on the most vulnerable communities (those who live in caravan parks or retirement homes, who have little disposal income to deal with random flash floods etc.) We also need to consider cultural impacts as sacred areas become inaccessible and Indigenous communities are displaced from country.  Mining is a particularly contentious issue and inextricably connected to this issue of social justice because it divides communities – those who are desperate to protect their land, and those who are desperate for employment and benefits for their children and their childrens’ children. It’s an impossible situation to put communities in – and we’re doing it in the Kimberly’s right now, and we’ve done it in the Hunter Valley and we’ll keep doing it as long as we insist on blasting enormous holes in our earth and failing to address systematic inequalities in our communities.

Another externality that Kirsty discussed that is under recognised are the health impacts of coal mining. In the last 30 years the Hunter Valley has had a 6 fold increase in coal mining. In 2009 the Singleton Shire Healthy Environment Group started a campaign to study the health impacts in the area. Local Doctor Au examined 900 children and found there was a more persistent incidence of lower lung function than in the broader population. Again, the problem with “externalities” like health, for example, is that they are not included in Environmental Assessments. So whilst Singleton and Muswellbrook have high rates of asthma and respiratory illness than Sydney; this is not considered when deliberating whether to open up another power station or dig another mine. This is particularly worrying in light of new US studies that show the fine dust PM2.5 which flies off the back of those open coal trains is associated with a 3 to 4 times greater chance of premature death in areas which are exposed regularly to the dust.

As long as we consider waste a “by-product” and not a part of the product itself we are never going to factor in the health, environmental and social costs of the products we make, the minerals we dig up and the pollution we pump into our atmosphere.

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