Sunday, October 18, 2009

Worst-Case Scenarios: Climate Change

Keeping with last post’s theme, let’s talk about the worst-case scenarios of climate legislation, and worst-case scenarios of neglecting to pass climate change legislation.

What is the worst-case scenario for opponents of climate legislation? Firstly, the Congressional Budget Office and the Environmental Protection Agency have separately come up with figures for approximately how much American households will pay per year as a result of House-proposed cap-and-trade scheme—ranging from $80 to $175 per household per year (about the price of one stamp per day, at the most). Of course, groups like the Heritage Foundation and influential demagogues like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have repeatedly pushed their own numbers, though they clearly have their own partisan (not to mention myopic, irresponsible, and gravely detrimental) agenda, and these numbers have been thoroughly debunked.

There are other potential negative consequences of a cap-and-trade bill than just Americans paying more money. American trade-exposed, energy-intensive industries could certainly be hit hard. Having to pay for emissions could cause industries to lose their competitive edge with similar firms overseas that do not have comparable legislation in effect. People associated with carbon-intensive power production, such as coal miners and oil extractors, could find their industries gradually contracting, and new jobs may be difficult to come by, as skills may not be immediately transferable to jobs in the clean energy sector.

I will not deny that Americans may have to pay more on their energy bills a few years from now, if legislation goes into effect. They will be only partially internalizing the vast and deleterious externalities of the energy that is generated in this country. But there are provisions in the House climate bill that will protect industries, and even utilities, from overly burdensome costs, and prevent offshore competition from undermining greenhouse reduction goals and attracting American industries to relocate and consumers to buy more imported goods. If these provisions are included in the final version of the reconciled House-Senate bill, they need to be tweaked to address issues of implementation and administrability, but they can keep our manufacturers competitive and sustainable in the long run, if manufacturers are smart about investments in energy efficiency (with the free allowances they will receive) and other GHG-reducing measures.

As for greenhouse gas-intensive generation industries, such as coal and oil, I appreciate that over the long term, they may lose out. Indeed, fossil fuels burned for electricity production are the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the US, and in the world. If we are serious about combating climate change, we need to take a serious look at coal, oil, and natural gas as major polluters and turn to less carbon-intensive sources of power and heat, as well as more efficient ones like combined heat and power plants and distributed generation.

Even so, electric utilities, especially ones with a large portion of coal generators, are given huge handouts in the House bill, and lawmakers are dishing out large amounts of cash to R&D for “clean coal technology,” a deceptively named prospect that, if actually developed, would keep coal plants alive and well throughout our country, maintaining the nefarious business of mountain-top removal and other coal extraction processes, while shoving CO2 beneath the earth and creating a slew of potential new problems with water toxicity and destruction of even more ecosystems.

And that’s if the bill does pass. What’s the worst-case scenario if it doesn’t? The short answer is, we have no idea. No one really does. But one pattern is abundantly clear. Every time climatologists have made an updated, more accurate model of what effects climate change could have on our planet, they have discovered that their models vastly underestimated the potency of feedback loops and the gravity of the consequences.

If we don’t pass comprehensive legislation, we will be contributing to the dismantling of countless fragile natural processes that have come to make our planet the livable world that it is. Climate change skeptics point out that there have historically been fundamental shifts in climatic conditions. Of course that’s true. But we didn’t cause them. And if we keep exacerbating these changes, we will continue to wreak havoc not only on other species, but also on our own species. There is no way to accurately predict the extent of the increase in flooding, erratic weather, aridity, sea level rises, and temperature increases. And these will lead to increased propensity for disease, malnutrition, climate refugees, strife and warfare, and now, as even the Department of Defense has come to acknowledge, huge national security risks.

Not addressing climate change—both as a nation and as a united coalition of nations worldwide—would probably be the most foolish and profound blunder ever carried out by mankind. And yet, as we approach the Copenhagen international climate summit in December with almost no chance of having a US climate bill passed, it’s beginning to look like maybe Americans really will be the ones who took the lead on letting our species slowly but surely allow the world's climate to change fundamentally, and without possible reversal of our actions. We are in the midst of one of the most important democratic undertakings in the history of the world, and it seems like we the people are either completely oblivious, heinously indifferent, or just infinitely greedy.

Yes, your electricity bill might increase. Just think of it as paying a little bit to charity every month—a charity that will help prevent thousands of other charities from having to do some of the work that will inevitably need to be done to adapt to climate change, help care for the diseased, provide refuge for displaced persons, and the innumerable other services that will need to be met to cope with a changing climate. Or just oppose the bill and let your children and grandchildren deal with the consequences.

Images: Markey announces climate change bill passage (, flood in Bangladesh (The Guardian), CO2 Emissions by fuel (, COP15 Logo (

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