Gas prices are rising, and it’s mostly a good thing.
If that sounds absurd, I get it. No one likes to pay more, myself included. But when it comes to fossil fuels, we’ve got to start paying full price or we’ll never get out of this mess.
By “this mess” I’m referring to the climate crisis, of course. It’s a nonnegotiable at this point, and we’d be reducing our reliance on fossil fuels a whole lot faster if we weren’t so focused on keeping gas cheap. Hear me out.
Cheap gas enables our bad behavior. Every time we go to a pump and save money we’re incentivized to keep doing it. It’s only with external incentives such as rising prices that most of us will start to change our consumption habits, mostly because without pain humans are likely to take the easiest option. In this case, that’s continuing the use of fossil fuels, even though we know it harms us later.
This is why rising gas prices are actually a good thing in the long run, even if it causes many of us temporary financial strain in the short term. Think of it like the marshmallow test for adults: It’s only by aligning our shortterm and longterm goals that we can begin to truly move forward.
The question then becomes how much would a gallon of gas have to cost before most of us are incentivized to stop buying it? Is $8 enough? Would paying that much cause more of us to trade in our cars for public transit? What about $10? Is that high enough to encourage people to swap out an F-150 for a more modest vehicle? If not, would $15 or $20 per gallon make consumers think twice? What’s the breaking point?
As a colleague pointed out over drinks, this breaking point is different for everyone, his being much higher than mine. Then again, I already save my pennies by walking, biking, carpooling and busing more than most, and hope to qualify for the state’s “cash for clunkers” electric vehicle program, so perhaps more emphasis on public options would help balance out our income discrepancies and therefore our breaking point.
There are a few caveats to paying more being good. First, if we’re going to pay more to keep using fossil fuels, who and where that extra money goes to is important. We shouldn’t be OK with gas prices going up if it means Exxon’s multimillionaire CEO sees another 52% salary bump, especially when the average pay for Exxon workers dropped 9% in the same year. On multiple levels, that’s wrong. It’s also unproductive to meet the goal of transitioning to renewables.
We should, however, learn to be OK with paying more if it reflects the true cost of fossil fuels, which is simply to say that the extra money we spend should be put toward transitioning to a cleaner and safer future. That’s the biggest problem with today’s increase in gas prices; they’re going up for largely the wrong reasons.
This brings us to the second matter, government subsidies. Why are we still subsidizing a product that is so heavily damaging our planet and that will later cost us far more than we save now? We have reasonable alternatives for many needs, and we’d be inclined to find more if oil and gas weren’t so cheap.
For decades gas prices have remained largely consistent when adjusted for inflation, mostly because governments have been incentivized to offset any increases in cost with taxpayer dollars. This might have tempered immediate consumer pain, but over time it has led to a much deeper problem by perpetuating a system we need to transition away from.
To this end, promises by world leaders to decrease fossil fuels subsidies have been broken repeatedly. In 2020, there were $500 billion in fossil fuel subsidies worldwide. Yet in 2022, governments worldwide actually increased their rate of oil and gas subsidies by more than double to offset supply changes after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fossil fuel subsidies now total a whopping $1.3 trillion worldwide with little end in sight. For context, the U.S. government spent an estimated $10 to $50 billion toward those funds, while spending only 46% of its total energy-related subsidies on renewables during the same year.
The strategy of pumping more and more taxpayer money into fossil fuels isn’t just masking the true cost of oil and gas, it’s artificially keeping afloat an industry that probably would have sunk long ago if left to its own devices. By making the same mistake to invest more despite mounting evidence of fossil fuel use accelerating climate change, consumers remain unmotivated to switch to renewables more rapidly.
No doubt, as my friend aptly pointed out, allowing gas prices to naturally increase by removing subsidies and adding appropriate taxes will be felt by the most economically disadvantaged and middle class. Yet here again, the price of gasoline is not so much the issue as are things like stagnant wages and our lack of robust public transit — all things lawmakers could place an emphasis on to help reduce the burden of cost in a far more carbon-friendly way while we transition.
So who’s with me in changing the narrative? Cheap gas sounds good until we remember what it means for us later on. Are you willing to pay a little more or change your behavior so we can all be better off? Because the faster we reduce fossil fuels now the better we are in 10, 20 and 50 years.
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