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Originally published June 7, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified June 8, 2014 at 9:46 AM

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Big role U.S. can play in confronting climate change

The new rules proposed by EPA aren’t ideal. But it’s a start and could give the United States a position of strength from which to influence other nations.


Special to The Seattle Times

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On climate change the planet is saying, you can pay me now or you can pay me later.

President Obama has made a modest step on paying now with the Environmental Protection Agency proposing rules that would require coal-fired power plants to reduce their carbon emissions by about a third between now and 2030.

Coal is the largest cause of carbon-dioxide emissions, followed by automobiles.

If the new regulations survive the three-month comment period, as well as challenges from Congress and in court, they would give states great flexibility in meeting the targets. Washington state is already in good shape.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has warned that the regulations would cost $50 billion a year. As Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman has pointed out, that’s not an insurmountable sum in a $15 trillion economy. And that accepts that the questionable methodology of the Chamber is true.

The EPA estimates economic benefits between $55 billion and $93 billion by 2030. Among the other goods would be avoiding thousands of premature deaths as well as lowering asthma attacks among children.

Hyped job losses among coal miners, hardly an ideal vocation, are not weighed against the job gains in such areas as solar and other alternative energy, as well as building new plants to run on natural gas and developing effective carbon-capture technology for coal.

The economy is dynamic and responds to incentives.

The new rules aren’t ideal. But Congress refuses to act on more aggressive steps, such as taxing carbon or cap-and-trade. It’s a start and could give the United States a position of strength from which to influence other nations.

The pay-me later scenario is on display with the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

I’m not a scientist, as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio would say. But the most eminent scientists who actually study climate have concluded that the problem is already being felt on every continent and in the oceans. And it will get much worse unless action is taken.

Intensifying drought is putting pressure on food and water supplies, as well as increasing wildfires. Ocean acidification, a consequence of climate change explored in depth by The Seattle Times’ Craig Welch and Steve Ringman, poses a critical danger to fisheries. Sea rise will endanger cities and settlements worldwide.

And yet it is difficult to pin down a sum from this disaster that might get the attention of our society, which puts so much stock by money. Even if economists agreed, critics would immediately throw out arguments that the costs of action are too great.

For example, the 2006 Stern Review, prepared for the British government, said measures to lower carbon emissions would be much cheaper than doing nothing. It is still being argued over.

The review stated that without action, climate change would cost world gross domestic product 5 percent a year, a figure that could rise to 20 percent if wider effects are factored in. Since then, economist Nicholas Stern has said he underestimated the costs because climate change is happening faster than was assumed.

Another report, from the International Energy Agency, said that “decarbonizing” the world energy system would require $44 trillion in investment. But it would be offset by more than $115 trillion in fuel savings.

What is clear is that the status quo represents a massive market failure whose costs will far offset the any seeming benefits such as a year-round Northwest Passage and new oil reserves (to further worsen climate change).

Industrial civilization has been pumping greenhouse gases into the global commons called the atmosphere. Yet the costs of doing so haven’t been priced in.

Inaction means leaving our children and grandchildren a nasty and dangerous Earth that we wouldn’t recognize. And no, adapting will not be enough.

Making the many transitions to avoid that fate will take years and great political will. So far, it hasn’t been happening, even though the first U.N. conference on climate change was held in 1992.

The bitter resistance to America acting is especially peculiar.

For one thing, the United States is the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2, and the largest per capita, almost 18 tons per person annually. That’s well above most of Europe and the advanced economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). So even acting alone, we would make a huge difference.

Also, opponents to addressing climate change tend to be people who celebrate American ingenuity and American exceptionalism. Why do those virtues not give us both an advantage and a duty in saving the planet on which you, me and the Koch brothers all live?

America would be followed, particularly if we led in research and manufacturing of clean energy technologies.

The 70th anniversary of D-Day was marked last week, when we helped liberate a continent and destroy a regime that represented an unprecedented threat to the world. We did that.

Next month will mark the 1969 flight of Apollo 11, which landed humans from Earth on another heavenly body for the first time, part of a burst of scientific achievement. The nation embarked on these endeavors, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” We did that.

Now our world faces a gathering calamity unlike any in history. Why can’t we lead now? Have we lost our way so?

Unless we find it, we most definitely will pay later.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com



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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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