The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Environmental costs are important so stop lying about them

Many people don't read past the headline of a news story. Headline writers have immense and in my opinion unearned power to influence public opinion. Their objective is to capture attention. To this end they often exaggerate or misrepresent to the point of abject falsehood the contents of the article. When the subject is important the results of poor headline writing can be disastrous.

Here's an example.

New UN report finds almost no industry profitable if environmental costs were included

This is a doubly false headline.

First of all, this isn't a "UN report" but a report conducted on behalf of TEEB, a group which aims to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity. The TEEB is "hosted by" United Nations Environmental Program. This is one of the dirty tricks of headline writers. They fictionalize authority to artificially inflate the headline's credibility.

The big lie is about environmental costs. On page 28 of the report Table 5 shows 62 of the top 100 "greatest impact" region-sectors are still "profitable" when you subtract the natural capital costs from their revenue. That's a majority, even after cherry-picking the most polluting sectors from the NAICS list (page 63) and world regions (page 77).

This report does illustrate that some industries can't afford to pay for their external costs. Many of these industries like water supply and cereal farming are crucial to human survival and we all must share the cost. Nobody is suggesting all industries incorporate all externalities.

Other industries, notably cattle ranching and coal power generation should probably be reduced. Eating less meat and building solar panels will help the environment. Neither of those lessons are news to me. I find this report supports what we already know. If you take the time to read it.

External costs are real and represent a terrible price paid by the environment. Exaggerating them doesn't help protect biodiversity. It only serves to alienate would-be allies.

I would like to see more regulation put in place to factor in external costs. These regulations can force industry to mitigate and repair damage to the environment.