The Paris conference on climate change this month makes the recent flurry of misinformed letters and Sound Offs on the topic decidedly ironic.
While the rest of the world agrees, finally, that climate change poses a real threat to the human future, most American conservatives persist in denying reality. Their reasoning relies on certain flawed assumptions that editors and readers often miss. Such assumptions require inspection.
Foremost, deniers assume that carbon energy is cheap, ignoring what scientists call its "social costs." The "social costs" of CO2 emissions, for instance, include the decreased agricultural yields, harm to public health, lower productivity and deaths from tropical disease associated with climate change. These costs might also include the 2.1 million deaths a year worldwide from auto and coal exhaust particulates, as detailed in The Lancet in December 2012.
Recently, researchers at Stanford calculated the "social costs" of one ton of CO2 at $220. Because American CO2 emissions totaled 6.2 billion tons in 2013, the "social costs" of American CO2 thus come to $1.364 trillion.
That's over 8 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
Carbon energy, in other words, is not cheap, as global warming deniers assume. It kills millions, limits growth and burdens the economy. Figure these hidden "social costs" directly into the price of gasoline and coal -- perhaps through a fee and dividend arrangement -- and, suddenly, innovation, alternative energy and conservation become a bargain.
Human action has become a geologic force, changing the planet faster than at any time known to science, including mass extinction events. At the same time, unprecedented numbers of humans live in a single globalized society. What happens anywhere has implications everywhere, be it global warming, terrorism or ecological ruin.
In the gathering twilight of our age, global warming will either unite a fractious humanity or extinguish it. The choice, as the poet said, is ourselves or nothing.