"You can pay me now or pay me later"

Published Tuesday, October 2, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

That’s the memorable tagline from an ad for engine oil filters that ran at least two decades ago.

It featured a mechanic standing beside a car lamenting (I’m paraphrasing), “These people!  If only they’d changed their oil and filter on time!” 

He continued, “They should have known – it’s right there in the manual.  The warning light even came on!  But they ignored it and drove on and on – didn’t want to spend any money.” 

“So now, instead of spending a few dollars on oil and a filter, they’re paying for a new engine.”  Then, after delivering a pitch for Fram filters, he closed with his memorable line: “You can pay me now or pay me later.”

Planet Car?
That ad and its tagline are a fitting analogy for what’s happening on planet Earth right now.  In particular, it reflects how easily we humans seem to be able to ignore owner’s manuals, disregard warning lights and still choose the cheapest path of least resistance.

Take our consumption of fossil fuels.  We’re clearly addicted, relying on them for everything from electricity to transportation to food.  They make our good lives possible.  But in the process of burning them, we’re dumping 90 million tonnes of emissions into our atmosphere every day, as if it were an open sewer.  Not good.  As author Paul Hawken points out, “This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them.”

And now the warning light is on.  From extreme weather to disappearing ice to strained resources, our planet is flashing us signals of impending problems unless we pause for a little preventative maintenance.

Yet we continue on, unable – or perhaps unwilling – to stop.  Preventative maintenance costs money; it’s cheaper to just keep going.  Keep burning oil, coal and natural gas.

However, as the Fram mechanic pointed out years ago, sometimes things that seem cheap in the short term – like ignoring preventative maintenance – lead to very expensive trouble in the longer term.  And sometimes things that seem expensive in the short term – like preventative maintenance – are really much cheaper in the long term.

A carbon price signal
That’s why a price on carbon – whether carbon tax or cap-and-trade – is so badly needed.  It may be distasteful to many, but it’s akin to planetary preventative maintenance. 

Here’s the reasoning.  At present, our economic system allows us to pollute without cost; it allows us to use the atmosphere as a huge, free dump for emissions with the convenient but flawed assumption that we can keep doing that forever without consequence.  (Economists call it an externality.)  That freebie keeps fossil fuels artificially cheap, and that’s why we keep consuming them ever faster, even when we know it’s wrecking the planet. 

A price on carbon – a surcharge placed on oil, coal and natural gas to pay for the pollution they produce – would change that.  It would make fossil fuels more expensive so that sustainable alternatives like wind, solar, tidal and wave become cheaper in comparison.  And since we always buy cheap, a price on carbon would hasten our transition to renewable energy – a very good thing for planetary health.

True, carbon pricing is not without problems.  It would require bold leadership in a world that feels entitled to cheap energy.  It would cause significant economic shifts, and would need to be implemented carefully.  It would have to be revenue-neutral and rebate all money raised back to taxpayers in the form of lower taxes elsewhere.  The principle of a level playing field means that all countries should take part.  And more.

But economists and politicians who are both smart and honest acknowledge that, even if it’s a challenge, putting some sort of price penalty on fossil fuels is key to changing the behaviour of a species that buys cheap. 

Evidently there’s a shortage of those types of people in Ottawa.  A carbon tax made the news recently, but only because the Conservatives and NDP were falling over each other to distance themselves from it.  Shame on them. 

And perhaps shame on us too, voters who seem to abhor paying for a bit of planetary preventative maintenance.  Because if we think that pricing carbon now is costly, just wait until the bills start rolling in for rescue, repairs and adaptation once the full force of unchecked climate change kicks in. 

I can just imagine what the Fram mechanic would say.  “You can pay me now.  Or your kids can pay me later.”