Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and vocation. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928)
Few people (if any) deny the priority of protecting the environment viewing it as a matter of justice. “[T]he conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due” include clean water, clean air, and safe, livable human surroundings. It’s only just.
At the same time, we have to count the cost and look at the benefits every time we make an environmental decision lest we harm the very people we are trying to help. Again, it’s only just.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently wrote new regulations for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants with the putative purpose of mitigating climate change (a.k.a. global warming), giving us a case in point.
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket…. Coal-powered plants, you know, natural gas, you name it, whatever the plants were, whatever the industry was, they would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that money on to consumers.”
The EPA’s new regulations all but guarantee that candidate Obama’s words will come true even without cap-and-trade. Faced with the high costs of complying with the regulations, utilities either raise their prices or go bankrupt.
So be prepared for higher prices, not just for electricity, but for pretty much everything. Higher electric prices don’t simply mean a bigger utility bill in your mailbox. Businesses will also receive higher utility bills and they too will pass the costs on to consumers, that is, to you.
In the Heritage Foundation report “EPA Power Plant Regulations: A Backdoor Energy Tax,” policy experts Nicolas Loris, Kevin D. Dayaratna, and David W. Kreutzer write, “Because everything Americans use and produce requires energy, consumers will take hit after hit. As prices rise, consumers buy less, and companies are forced to shed employees, close entirely, or move to other countries where the cost of doing business is lower. The result is fewer opportunities for American workers, lower incomes, less economic growth, and higher unemployment.”
The report projects what will happen by 2023 if the EPA achieves what appear to be its dual objectives of carbon regulation and stifling the coal industry. The US economy loses nearly 600,000 jobs, manufacturing loses over 270,000 jobs, coal-mining jobs drop 30 percent. “A family of four’s annual income drops more than $1,200 per year, and its total income drops by nearly $24,400.” Finally, “aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) decreases by $2.23 trillion.”
The benefits we’ll enjoy are… actually there don’t appear to be any. The Heritage report quotes the EPA: “this proposed rule will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, quantified benefits, and costs by 2022.” As The Cornwall Alliance’s Dr. E. Calvin Beisner wrote in the Christian Post, “Achievement? Insofar as reducing global warming—the purported rationale—so little as to be indiscernible. Ever.”
Consider the effects of a $1,200 drop in family income every year. The family making $250,000 will hardly miss it. The family making $75,000 may feel something. The family making $20,000 will suddenly be short six percent the first year with more pain coming.
Consider the effects of a rise in utility prices (ignoring for the moment a rise in all prices). According to NPR, a family making over $150,000 spends 4.8% on utilities. A family making $15,000 to $19,000 spends 11.1%. The rich will find higher utility bills bothersome. The poor will find them devastating.
Now combine the two remembering that the financial pain yields no discernable benefits. It does, however, yield very discernable injustice.
After defining social justice, the Catechism goes on to say, “Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him” (1929).
That is, the needs of real, live human individuals come before abstractions and collectives, before “the environment,” before “the planet.” G. K. Chesterton’s evil genius in his novel The Ball and the Cross expresses clearly what many seem to believe silently. When challenged about whether he believes life is sacred, he replies, “Yes, indeed! Life is sacred—but lives are not sacred. We are improving Life by removing lives.” Any alleged “common good” that neglects the good of the individuals always results in injustice.
The way to champion social justice in environmentalism is to ask three questions.
First, ask economist Kenneth Chilton’s question: “How clean is clean enough?” Chilton writes, “Absolute safety is not possible, and trying to achieve it is unaffordable.” Therefore, costs must be balanced with benefits. The new EPA regulations are only the latest example of the government’s willingness to spare no expense to the public for absolute goals that, in addition to being neither achievable nor affordable, harm individuals and families.
Second, ask, “What will be the impact on the poor?” Environmental policies—particularly those that purport to save the poor from the ravages of global climate change—almost seem designed to keep the poor in dependence and poverty. This is a direct violation of social justice since we rob people of their ability to produce and contribute, and, thus, we steal their dignity, whenever we create policies makes or keeps them dependent and poor.
Third, ask, “How can we structure environmental regulations to protect the environment while raising the poor out of their poverty?” Theologian Michael Novak writes in The Universal Hunger for Liberty, “The deepest motivation for trying to help the poor gain a more becoming affluence is for their own liberation and basic dignity—so that they might become all that God has given them the potential to be. But it is also true that the relief of poverty gives much promise of helping to preserve a more healthful environment.”
“The heavens are the Lord’s heavens,” wrote the psalmist, “but the earth he has given to the sons of men” (Psalm 115:16). He has given it to us that we may be stewards of the earth and lovers of our neighbors, caring for the environment and helping others flourish and prosper. After all, it’s only just.Google+