What’s missing from climate debate

If you’re anything like me, you’re sick of the climate debate in Washington. It’s become all but synonymous with partisan gridlock. Even among those of us who agree that climate change is real, we’re mired in the same old tired debates: Why should the U.S. act to constrain emissions before China and India? Shouldn’t we just wait for the United Nations to assemble an international agreement?

We need new ways to talk about this problem and new solutions that don’t end in the same old arguments. That’s why I think it’s time we focused on short-lived climate pollutants, or SLCPs (clunky acronym, I know). They’re some of the worst actors when it comes to climate change, and reducing them will require the cooperation of the entire world, not just those of us in big, developed economies.

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Carbon dioxide isn’t the only gas driving climate change. Some greenhouse gases are hundreds to thousands of times more potent. Carbon dioxide only accounts for about half of man-made global warming. The bulk of the rest is comprised of so-called “short-lived climate pollutants” which include methane, soot, and hydroflourocarbons (HFCs), all of which have a shorter atmospheric lifespan than CO2. 

Why are these pollutants important? Because when it comes to combating climate change, targeting SLCPs gets you the biggest bang for your buck. Cutting these pollutants alone could slow climate warming by as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius, avoid 2 million premature deaths each year and save 30 million tons of crops annually. Combating the pollutants isn’t just about the climate, it’s about saving lives. 

Unlike carbon dioxide, SLCPs do not drive the global economy, so quickly reducing them can be more easily accomplished. Further, the U.S. is already a leader in the technologies needed to drive reductions, so it makes economic sense for us as well. We can employ alternatives to the HFCs used in refrigeration and air conditioning, do a better job of replacing older cook stoves and diesel engines that produce black carbon, and harness waste methane seeping out of landfills, wastewater plants and pipelines. 

But we can’t do it alone. That’s why the U.S. created a multilateral organization last year with dozens of other nations, with the unwieldy name of the Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC). The group will work to share best practices for fighting short-lived climate pollutants and making sure everyone does their share of the work. But they need support both from U.S. businesses here at home and recalcitrant governments abroad. 

This is an issue we can do real, meaningful work — and do it now. We don’t need to sit around and wait for a U.N. agreement or slog through a lengthy treaty debate here in the Senate. Instead, if we make addressing SLCPs a priority here at home and across the international community, we can save lives, promote American technologies and businesses, and protect the environment in the process. That’s something we can all agree on — hopefully. 

Murphy represents Connecticut in the U.S. Senate, and spoke recently about short-lived climate pollutants at the Center for National Policy.