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Invisible Ink, The Social Cost of Carbon

Risa Lewis

Magic runs in the veins of all New Englanders—

our dull stares as we overtake you on the sidewalk

may leave you unconvinced,

but I know it to be true.

I have witnessed neighbors cast spells

on their own minds for a decade now,

recoding as normal the mercurial patterns of rain

and warmer autumns, later

winters, and never enough snow.

In the cursed human mind, it only takes

two years for unprecedented

to become always.[1]

I used to joke that it was

always winter at the Lewis household,

thanks to the shade of an army of trees

my environmentalist mother

declared war on. The day before

the 2011 Halloween nor’easter arrived

and cancelled trick-or-treating

for the rest of my life, chainsaws

and lifts brought each pine to the ground—

all but a telephone pole laughing

hysterically in the middle of our yard,

stripped of its branches like the ominous cousin

of the wacky waving inflatable

arm flailing tube man

shivering at the dealership down the street.

Snow used to cover our yard for four months straight,

and now I ask my past do I still have permission,

do I use the word winter correctly?

But New Englanders are well-prepared to handle tragedy.

We descend from the witches of Salem—

one of my ancestors lived,

while the other was caught and hanged—

and today we honor their names

and the careless burning of the earth.

We continue the tradition of ignorance

and rewrite the truths of everyday existence

so they are easier to swallow. Our magic

is so powerful, we re-remember

without even trying.

Ignorance is the antidote to fear.

Fear is the antidote to science.

Science is the antidote to uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the antidote to inaction.

The people of tropical nations and the care-free Californians

do not understand inaction. While I sit by the fire and miss

the dependable snow of my childhood,

fires are wandering unaccompanied in Paradise

and entire islands are being swallowed.[2]

Entire islands are being swallowed because the world

fails to value the things it cannot see—

where the water comes from, deep underground,

how the air hides the key to stability,

why a cherry tree matters, though it makes no sound,

who the future of we will be.

Here are some values the world can read:

For the rainforest lost and the gasified carbon

set free in the sky to ensure the heat’s high,

the dark chocolate bar sitting in my desk drawer

owes someone four cents, [3]

but I’m not sure who. This bittersweet penalty grows

and blooms as time consumes a forest—and chocolate?

Our love is ruined.

By these calculations I could not afford

the burgeoning price of such decadent vice.

In thirty years, why, the affliction accrued

would cost the same four pennies, plus two extra cents.

Compelling? I’ll bet.

The Prius I drive is a tad more expensive— in 2019 it costs 83 dollars and 64 cents and

the bill? The earth gets it.

In the year 2050, that debt almost doubles, [4]

assuming our worries aren’t the worst

that could be—now here comes the

(don’t say it!) uncertainty.

Assume the worst.

Carbon just finalized its divorce from my car.

Carbon feels productive, unhindered, care-free,

giving more of Earth’s heat a lovable squeeze

so it stays for a while.

And now in the year 2050,[5] my car

that was already lame

could owe not just one, but four

hundred dollars for drowning

the sorrows of unstable flooding,

droughts unbecoming,

and the absolute gone-ness of one out of every three plants and animals in the entire world[6]

drowning—in glass after glass of “natural” gas.

Make it go away. Think not of then, but today, when things are okay.

The smart people know that we feel this way.

Each cost computed above

is betting that someone, somewhere,

is keeping score (probably an economist),

and prefers last year’s you

a whole three percent more.[7]

And it’s generally true—

that generally you’d choose to spend in the now

than save for the later. That is, until later.

We care about later, just not until later,

we may not be later, so later is who?

Your cousin’s grandson?

Your dentist’s niece? The next Keanu Reeves?

And what if that same someone setting our worth

agrees that a person cannot match a fee? [8]

Well, beats me.

The social cost of carbon

may look laughable for a New Englander

and unfathomable for a nation

(in eighty years, we’ll annually

lose 4% of G.D.P.—who’s she?).[9]

But we can only stomach today,

only swallow

four chocolate pennies

melt down to millions

in a distant home

a dollar amount could make it known

that the cost is too high to explain

our inaction with uncertainty.

How else can we make others’ realities our own

before it is not our choice to do so?

This is the answer I try to declare in practical units,

but I’m not sure it’s there.

[1] [2] [3] Using US SCC of $41 in 2020, to $120 in 2020 for extreme events $69 in 2050, to $212/tCO2 in 2050 for extreme events [4] The annual cost doubles in 2050 compared to 2019, assuming 7,000 miles per year: [5] Assuming increased costs due to the extreme weather events mentioned in footnote 4. [6] [7] [8] [9]

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