June 16, 2024
Fossil fuel companies created the climate conditions that made such fires more likely and more catastrophic.

Maui faces devastating economic costs beyond its intolerable human loss and suffering from recent wildfires. Scorched homes and businesses reduced to rubble won’t be rebuilt quickly; cleaning up their remnants, some of them toxic, won’t be cheap. Rebuilding costs have been estimated at $5.5 billion.

Who will pay for this? Most of us will, to varying degrees, but some of those most responsible — the fossil fuel companies that play a key role in such climate-related disasters — won’t.

Extreme weather events always take their highest economic toll on the communities directly hit. Maui’s families, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, have suddenly lost both jobs and homes. They’ll now struggle to meet their most basic needs. Even those who have some savings will have to figure out how to make them last through long delays for inspections, insurance payments and federal aid.

Taxpayers will keep some emergency shelters and food supplies going and fund longer-term federal assistance. Over the past 10 years, the U.S. government has spent $350 billion on climate-related disasters.

Insurance companies will cover much of the property damage. They’ll probably hike rates across the state, too, passing on the costs to ordinary Hawaiians. Some may even stop selling homeowner coverage in Hawaii, as State Farm and others have done in wildfire-prone California, exposing residents to even greater costs.

Hawaiian Electric already faces legal action over the possibility that the utility‘s equipment started the fires. If California residents’ experience attempting to extract compensation from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is any guide, the results will be mixed.

The fossil fuel companies, however, won’t be paying a cent. That’s despite the fact that their products created the climate conditions that made such fires more likely and more catastrophic. Less rain, higher temperatures and other factors related to climate change have made Hawaii, like California, more vulnerable to wildfires.

As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have shown, major oil, gas and coal companies foresaw the catastrophic climatic consequences of fossil fuel use. But instead of leading an energy transition, they opted to sow public doubt about the link between fossil fuels and global warming and continued to invest in new mines and oilfields.

And it’s you and I and the struggling citizens of Maui who are left to pick up the ever-mounting bill for climate disasters.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

One solution is to put a price on carbon to account for “externalities,” the term economists use for costs that aren’t reflected in the prices consumers pay.

According to 28 Nobel laureate economists and 15 former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors, it makes good economic sense to charge fossil fuel companies for the real costs of their products through a carbon tax. That cost would include much of the billions of dollars of damage to Maui.

Of course, raising fuel prices could make life harder for Americans who already struggle to fill their gas tanks. But there’s an excellent economic solution to that too. The group Citizens Climate Lobby has proposed to return carbon pricing revenue through regular dividends to all U.S. households. This model would reduce emissions, create jobs and stimulate innovation without burdening low- and middle-income families.

Another solution is divestment from fossil fuel companies. Investors can force these companies to bear more of the social costs of their products by declining to buy and own their stocks.

As long as we keep investing in, subsidizing and cleaning up after the fossil fuel companies, they’ll keep happily passing on these exorbitant costs to us. Isn’t it time to send this bill to the right address?

Caroline Levine is a professor of the humanities at Cornell University, where she teaches in the Environment and Sustainability program. ©2023 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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