A tragic misperception about climate change

A tragic misperception about climate change
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The Trump administration’s rejection of efforts to limit human influence on the global climate is not in the national interest. Along with other nations, the United States faces great risks from climate change. 

The jury is in — only the most dyed-in-the-wool skeptics refuse to acknowledge that global warming is occurring and is human induced. Let there be no misunderstanding, the threat of severe economic and environmental damage is real and growing. Even Trump’s “America Firsters” should agree that we ought not risk the very environment upon which the health and prosperity of the nation depends.

The U.S. contributes to global warming not only through its own emissions of greenhouse gases but also by the effect of its behavior on the actions of other countries. The Trump administration’s failure to act ignores the fundamental nature of the problem. The burning of fossil fuels is the most important producer of carbon dioxide, which, when it becomes uniformly mixed in the atmosphere, impacts us all, regardless of the physical location of the source.

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Three areas for action are indisputably in America's national interest when it comes to curbing global carbon pollution. They are:

(1)  eliminating our own carbon pollution;

(2)  encouraging others to do the same;

(3)  helping poorer and highly vulnerable countries develop the capacity to adapt to the climate change we cannot stop, without which they will not be able to participate in the global carbon-abatement effort. 

Most important is for the U.S. to get its own house in order. Early decades of industrialization required inexpensive sources of energy, and we developed coal, oil and gas resources to fill the bill. Then, to add to the problem, we developed a consumer economy similarly dependent on these fuels. Only later did the full cost of fossil burning become apparent, and now there is an obvious need for transition to cleaner forms of energy. It will be necessary to direct new investment toward low polluting technologies, and no doubt to subject some existing facilities to early retirement. The cost to replace our carbon-polluting capital stock will be substantial.  

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Technology choices, however, must reflect the true costs of energy — not just for the economy but also for public health and the environment. That would come from burdening each with a financial penalty that captures the resulting climate damage estimated to result from the carbon emitted.

When including all costs of carbon pollution, the technology mix tilts in the direction of lower polluting technologies. The U.S. experience in addressing acid rain, with a charge on the emissions of sulfur pollution, demonstrates the value and feasibility of a more inclusive accounting system.

The U.S. must also encourage other countries to take similar action. Since carbon emissions respect no boundaries, it is clearly in our self-interest to act in a manner that encourages other countries to emit less. Inexplicably, current U.S. climate policy does just the opposite, reflecting an extraordinary predisposition to ignore, misinterpret and misrepresent the data and underlying science. This behavior offers other countries a pretense for adopting a similar position and threatens to undermine the fledgling global climate effort just getting underway.   

Offering developing countries incentives to forgo carbon dependence both now and in the future will be a heavy lift. If the U.S. does not reengage in the effort to halt carbon emissions, we will hardly be in a position to persuade others to do so, especially the three-quarters of the global population that are still in early stages of economic development. Moreover, in addition to a demonstrated domestic commitment, and perhaps some moral suasion, developing countries will need technical and financial assistance to fuel their development ambitions with clean energy technologies. 

Finally, it is in the U.S. interest to help the most vulnerable countries adapt to climate change that is already baked into the system. The amount of help required will depend on how quickly we manage to reduce global carbon emissions, and on mother nature’s response to our assault on the global system.

Ironically, the impacts of climate change will be felt most severely by the countries least able to deal with them. Unless these poorer countries can address the more immediate challenges of sustaining their population while maintaining political stability, they will be unlikely to participate in the global carbon-abatement effort. Ignoring the needs of these countries risks creating hundreds of millions of environmental refugees and stateless peoples. Regional conflicts and humanitarian crises would result — events that would tax the resources of rich and poor nations alike

The U.S. is at a critical juncture. We can remain a spectator and simply stand by and watch as damages continue to mount. Or we can rejoin the global effort to fight climate change and provide support and leadership in the struggle ahead. Committing to the global task represents the most just and ethical path; it is also the path most clearly in the nation’s self-interest.

Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He also served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first US National Climate Assessment.

Henry D. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.