Action on climate change has stalled for decades, but new legislation on the horizon might tackle the problem. By Adam J. Welti of Campus Progress
Despite years, well, decades, of scientific evidence of the threat of climate change, the United States has still failed to address the problem. The United States remains the largest single country contributor to CO2 emissions per capita in the world. It is also the country with an economy most able to address the problem. Political will to act on this issue has continued to waiver. Despite President Obama’s pledge to address the issue during his campaign and initial speeches, climate change has fallen behind the economic crisis as a priority.
The current administration’s attitude is a long way from the Bush-era denials of climate problems, but there are still climate skeptics despite years of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists’ data demonstrating the evidence of global warming. The arguments against taking action range from the views that addressing climate change in good times will hurt the economy to addressing it in bad times will risk prolonging the recession. There never seems to be a good time to address the problem in most traditional economists’ minds. But the reality is that climate change legislation, if crafted correctly, as environmental economists point out, can create jobs, drive innovation, make firms more competitive, and reduce our CO2 emissions—all at the same time.
There is congressional hope on the horizon. Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey are working on draft legislation, known as The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. It is legislation that, even in its preliminary stages, is a good starting point to begin the debate on concrete targets and incentives to move our country towards cutting emissions. The draft legislation is fairly comprehensive, even though several sections were still unwritten, but it aims to help bolster the economy while aiming to reduce our carbon footprint.
The Bill’s Goals: The Waxman-Markey legislation includes a requirement to move electricity production from 6 percent renewable sources in 2012 to 25 percent in 2025, a standard now being aimed for by states across the country. Unfortunately, the bill includes wording that aims to “ensure a continuing place for coal in our nation’s energy future.”
We cannot automatically quit our addiction to coal because it is still such a large percentage of our electricity production and is often used as a back-up for other kinds of energy. But such reliance is dangerous; coal makes up about 40 percent of our CO2 emissions in the United States. The outright support for continuation of such an environmentally damaging industry in environmental legislation is a bit disheartening.
Cap and Trade: The heart of the legislation calls for implementing a cap and trade scheme to reduce carbon emissions. As most economists recognize, without instigating a price mechanism to regulate CO2, little will be done to reduce our carbon emissions significantly. The goals set forth in this bill would reduce CO2 emissions, using 2005 levels as a baseline. The outlined regulations call for a 20 percent reduction in CO2 by 2020, a 42 percent reduction by 2030, and an 83 percent reduction by 2050. While they would reduce carbon emissions a great deal, these standards are still as aggressive that some environmentalists demand.
Electric vehicles: The bill calls for financial support to car companies to retool their operations in order to build electric vehicles. But recent events within the automotive industry in the United States should raise some red flags about whether the industry will actually follow through with calls for greener cars without regulations to do so.
National Electric Grid: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will be directed in the legislation to modernize the nation’s electrical grid. This is important for us to connect to renewable sources from region to region. The legislation will also to create a program to provide financial incentives to retailers selling high volumes of “Best-in-Class” appliances. While it’s true these appliances will which most likely cost a bit more than standard, higher-energy appliances, but by provide economic incentives, in the long-run such efforts would reduce energy use while giving incentives to spend more, providing a boon to revive the economy.
Green Jobs: The Waxman-Markey legislation also calls for the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Labor Linda Solis to develop curricula and training programs that would prepare students and current members of the workforce for careers in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other climate change mitigation strategies. This is imperative in retooling our workforce for the next generation of energy. These jobs, which have become known as green-collar careers, can be in a wide spectrum of pay scales, which will be integral to helping reduce the current high unemployment levels.
Planning for the Future: The legislation also asks federal agencies to prepare adaptation plans for addressing potential impacts of climate change in a proactive way. Such planning enables agencies and communities to begin planning for the future.
Recent work by a group of scientists, economists and civil society actors, entitled the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework, aims to mitigate the effects of a changing climate while ensuring the ability for developing countries to still develop. In this vein, countries such as the United States, India, and China—countries with massive CO2 emissions levels—would work to reduce their impact on the global community. Not only can the United States drive innovation and reductions at home, the cap and trade scheme being proposed could actually drive innovation abroad as well, being that the system is based on economic incentives to innovate. This could drive foreign firms to innovate and thereby buy up excess credits in the U.S. system.
A group called Greenhouse Development Rights has developed a framework that assumes the right to develop is inherent. Countries can achieve higher standards of living only if the wealthier nations free up “sufficient space” for poorer nations to develop and transition to a low-carbon economy. The proposed Waxman-Markey emissions targets do not meet the level proposed by this framework, since the reduction in carbon emissions needed to mitigate impacts on some of the most susceptible communities isn’t low enough, but the targets set in the Waxman-Markey legislation are a good starting point.
For legislation such as that of the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act to pass, there must be a greater amount of political pressure and sense of urgency. On this Earth Day, and every day from now on, we must ensure climate change is adequately addressed.
Adam J. Welti is a graduate student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University studying law and diplomacy and a contributor to Campus Progress.