Every now and then I see studies that try to estimate the real cost of fossil fuels, what we don’t pay up front. Normally they contain numbers that seem unbelievably low to me, like this one from the National Academy of Sciences that was reported on Grist. We blow the tops off mountains, kill miners quickly in accidents and slowly through black lung, pollute massive amounts of water, pollute the air, put mercury into the ecosystem, and on and on. All that only costs $62 billion a year? That’s a lot of money, but for the damage we’re seeing, it still seems awfully low.
But now there is a new study published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that estimates damage from coal at about $343 billion per year. That is a conservative number in a range that runs from $175 billion to $523 billion per year. Let us note that even the high end of this is incomplete. There is no real way to translate an illness or lost human life into money. We can quantify lost work days and higher medical costs, but an economist can’t determine what a life is worth spiritually or worth to the person killed or worth to the people who love the person killed. And if a place we love is lost to coal, that loss can’t be adequately measured either. We can count up higher insurance bills and higher taxes and higher costs for goods and services, but that’s only part of the picture.