Opinion: Slavery, Carbon, Economics and the Ties that Bind Us


slaveryBy Lee Barken, IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP

With the gathering of more than 130 world leaders in Copenhagen this week, the issue of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is taking center stage.  GHG has become the burden that no one country can unilaterally cure, but every person on the planet has a vested interest in addressing.

Cap and trade, along with other policy measures, have stirred a great deal of controversy–as they should.  Decisions to significantly alter the fabric of commerce and daily life should not be taken lightly.  Rigorous debate is essential and should be welcomed.

However, even the most ardent climate skeptic acknowledges that finite resources such as oil and other fossil fuels won’t last forever.  As such, the debate seems to be evolving into a question of when and not if.  In other words, is this a problem that needs to be tackled in the next five years?  Or, do we have 100 years to figure it out?

Bold Action

The lengthy negotiating sessions in Copenhagen demonstrate that the task of reducing carbon emissions is easier said than done.  Two things are certain: It won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy.

Beyond the politics and rhetoric of “saving the planet,” a larger question is emerging.  How do we take something that is free and start charging for it?  This debate is really about putting a price on carbon emissions and ending the free ride of pollution.

Carbon Emancipation

This wouldn’t be the first time that the world has done something to take a “free” resource and associate a price with it.  In the United States, this happened when we ended slavery.  At one point in our country’s history, paying slaves for their labor was considered a radical idea.  However, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and declared that “all persons held as slaves are, and henceforth shall be free.”

The decision to free slaves was a monumental step forward for human rights.  In addition, it changed the underlying economic dynamics.  The emancipation proclamation associated a price with something that used to be free.

Of course, this move did not come without resistance or conflict.  Opponents to freeing the slaves were even more confrontational then the current group of climate skeptics.  In fact, it led to a civil war.  Thankfully, the climate debate has more peaceful participants.

Economic Disruptions

Without question, freeing slaves caused an economic shockwave.  The inevitable financial burdens may have even led to the closure of some plantations.  However, the economic adjustment eventually normalized under a new model where all people were paid for their labor and the practice of slavery ended.

Can you imagine having to pay for your own pollution?  I know…it will be hard.  I’m sure it was also hard for the slave owners to clean their own houses and do their own laundry, at first.  However, ending slavery was the right thing to do.  Sure, it may have taken some getting used to for the slave owners and it will take some getting used to for us carbon emitters.

The good news is that over time, not only will we adapt to these changes, but we can expect them to create a fertile environment for innovation.  In the post slavery era, new incentives were created because the true cost of labor became properly allocated.  New products and technologies were invented that made us less dependent on back breaking manual labor.  Many of these inventions came in the form of agriculture automation and household tools, both of which made life more efficient and convenient.

To put it another way, if the marginal cost of labor is zero, then there is no incentive to be efficient or use it wisely.  Natural resources are no different.

Are Climate Skeptics Modern Day Slave Owners?

Nearly 150 years ago, slave owners believed that they could abuse human beings and cloaked themselves in a variety of arguments to justify their actions.  Some even misquoted the bible to support their racist views.  Other took a blind eye and said “That’s just the way it is.”  It could also be suggested that some found it difficult to acknowledge the fundamental inequities of slavery because they feared the financial consequences to their plantations and businesses.

Today, climate skeptics believe that we can continue to abuse our planet without regard to the consequences.  Not surprisingly, this view is particularly popular among those individuals and corporations that have the most to lose in a world where the true cost is allocated to carbon emissions.

In this regard, it’s important not to label climate skeptics as evil or ignorant.  Rather, we should acknowledge that climate change legislation will involve some short term sacrifice for everybody.  However, in the long run, the effects of cap and trade will be normalized in much the same way that our labor markets now function just fine without slavery.

Ethics and Ethos

In looking back, it’s clear that taking a stand for human liberty was the right thing to do.  We are proud of our history and the actions taken by our leaders nearly 150 year ago.  Hopefully we can say the same thing about today’s leaders when future generations look back at what we did in Copenhagen and successive climate summits.

Will they think we were barbaric in the way we treated our environment, in much the same way our modern society views the barbaric treatment of slaves?  How would you have reacted to a slave owner if they claimed that they could not “afford” to free the slaves and pay people a fair wage for their labor?

While the climate debate rages on, let’s consider not only the environmental conditions we leave for our future generations, but also the moral compass we leave as our legacy.  Freedom isn’t free.  Neither is carbon.  Ending free carbon emissions, like ending slavery is a legacy that we can all be proud of.

Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP and serves on the board of directors of CleanTECH San Diego and the U.S. Green Building Council – San Diego chapter. Lee writes and speaks on the topics of carbon accounting, green building, IT audit compliance, enterprise security and wireless LAN technology. He is currently in Copenhagen attending the COP-15 conference. You can reach him at 858-350-4215 or lbarken@hwcpa.com.

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