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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Penguins and Global Warming

by Fred E. Foldvary

The earth has a bipolar disorder. Global warming threatens the wildlife of both the north and south polar regions. In the north, the polar bears are dying off because the ice shelves they depend on to reach their prey have been melting. In the south, melting ice and snow create huge cracks and caverns which trap penguins and make it difficult for them to travel to breeding and feeding areas.

Skeptics of global warming can point to areas such as the center of Antarctica where there has been no warming, but the evidence is clear now that average global temperatures are rising, and the visual evidence of melting glaciers is there for anyone to see. In the U.S.A., Glacier National Park will have to be renamed Park Meltdown.

In 1998 I wrote on the threats to the survival of the penguins. At that time, oil spills, pollution, and predators were killing many penguins. Now warming is the main problem, as it could destroy the habitat of the penguins in Antarctica.

The various types of birds are classified as “orders,” and the penguin order is called Sphenisciformes. This order contains aquatic flightless birds which live in the Southern Hemisphere. As only penguins are in that order, penguins are quite different from all other birds in walking upright and in some of them being able to live in extremely cold climates.

Penguins are dying throughout the Southern Hemisphere. In the Prince Edward Islands by South Africa in the Indian Ocean, penguin populations are shrinking. As the oceans warm up, the prey eaten by penguins move south to cooler waters.

The 900-mile-long Antarctic Peninsula which sticks out from the main continent is warming up at a greater pace than the world average. There the ice is melting rapidly, and huge chucks of ice sheets are braking off. The Adelie penguins there have to swim ever longer distances to get food, and there is also less food, especially krill, small shrimp-like animals that depend on the sea ice. If the warming continues, they will be unable to survive there.

In the Ross Sea by Antarctica, two huge ice sheets have broken away from the ice sheet and block the passage that penguins use from feeding to breeding areas. They have to walk 30 miles (50 kilometers) more to get to the feeding waters. This creates an extreme hardship for penguins as they waddle on land at only one mile per hour. The population of the impressive emperor penguins in Antarctica has been cut in half during the past 50 years.

The penguin order is not overall threatened with extinction, as some species can live in warmer climates. Nevertheless, penguins everywhere are under pressure, as while there are no predators on Antarctica, penguins further north are threatened by predators such as cats, dogs, and rats.

The warming of the Antarctic Peninsula and decline of the penguins there is a warning to humanity about the looming global threat for humanity. Many people world-wide have viewed the documentary film by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, “An Inconvenient Truth.” It is unfortunate that this persuasive film dwells almost entirely on the problem, with very little on solutions. It’s fine to replace old light bulbs with new ones that are more energy efficient, but there is no good substitute for economic policies that make people pay the social cost when they do damage to the planet.

In a speech at the New York University School of Law on September 18, 2006, Al Gore, proposed replacing payroll taxes with a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Gore has advocated “the elimination of all payroll taxes -- including those for social security and unemployment compensation - and the replacement of that revenue in the form of pollution taxes -- principally on CO2. The overall level of taxation would remain exactly the same. It would be, in other words, a revenue neutral tax swap. But, instead of discouraging businesses from hiring more employees, it would discourage business from producing more pollution.”

Some Green parties and environmentalists and geoists (Georgists) have gone further and propose a complete green tax shift that would replace all punitive taxes with levies on pollution and land value. By shifting public revenue to land rent or land value along with pollution, the shift to efficiency taxes would benefit both the economy and the environment, as it would eliminate the deadweight loss of the punitive taxation of wages, profits, and trade.

A rapid green tax shift would stop the human contribution to global warming and help save both the penguins and human beings from the looming damage of rising temperatures. The bonus is that there is a great economic benefit from this shift even if human activity is contributing little to global warming.

In cost-benefit analysis, the probability of an outcome has to be multiplied by its estimated cost. The potential cost of runaway global warming, of reaching a tipping point followed by an exponential increase in global heat, is colossal, so even a small probability warrants quick action. So Al Gore and those properly alarmed by global warming should focus on the green tax shift. Anything else, whether greener light bulbs or pollution permits, will only help a little. Regulations and permits impose economic costs, while the green tax shift provides big benefits. Only a global green tax shift will save the penguins, humanity, and the planet from a possible global catastrophe.

This article first appeared in the Progress Report, Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.

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