Behind the controversy over Shell's drilling in the Arctic are the economic costs of climate change and a huge moral issue. But can Seattle really do anything about it? Please vote.

Share story

Until the Civil War, slavery was extremely profitable. Slave-picked cotton made possible the textile mills that drove the Industrial Revolution in the Northeast. Cotton was by far the nation’s largest and most lucrative export. Slave-state interests were behind the theft of land owned by the Five Civilized Tribes in the Southeast and the war with Mexico, the better to expand plantation acreage and the market for slaves in the mid-Atlantic states. Abolitionists were considered extremists in both the South and the North.

Today’s great moral-economic issue is human-caused climate change. At least 97 percent of scientists who actually study climate change say it is real and human caused. So if you’re a “denier,” thanks for the page view, move along. Scientists also tell us that climate change is happening much faster than models predicted even a few years ago.

Our economy and “lifestyle” are built around burning fossil fuels into the global commons called the atmosphere. They are provided by companies that receive massive federal subsidies, as well as the U.S. Navy protecting the sea lanes. But unless we find a way to keep most of the remaining carbon in the ground, costs will accumulate year after year. Making a transition to cleaner energy would be affordable, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There is tremendous resistance: from oil producers, from developing countries who want their share of the atmosphere to pollute. An argument is made that the United States shouldn’t act unless China does — a strange one coming from people who otherwise preach “American exceptionalism.” What if American ingenuity set off a green revolution that China had no choice to follow? Indeed, Beijing is already making strides.

The costs from climate change won’t be limited to developing nations. Washington agriculture is at risk from drought and less snowfall. Long-term, rising sea levels will affect us. “Climate refugees” from the Southwest will bring huge costs. Climate-related disputes and discontinuity raises red flags for trade.

Which brings us to Seattle and the arrival of Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet. One point of debate is that a single port or metropolitan area can’t make a whit of difference. On the other side is the idea that anything that makes it harder to extract carbon is a good thing and might be emulated elsewhere. There is a moral argument, that whether or not keeping Shell out “makes economic sense” it is the right thing to do. And a pragmatic one, that the Port of Seattle has an obligation to make use of an idle asset for an activity that is legal.

Sure, Seattle could be doing more to build a green-energy cluster, transit and etc. And no doubt some of the protesters finish up and drive off in their SUVs, but let’s focus on the narrow topic.

Where do you come down?

The poll has expired. Thank you for your submissions.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Icahn at the wheel

He took a big stake in Lyft

Prepare for the fall


I invite you to follow me on Twitter @jontalton, also on Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest.