Despite an action-packed snowball fight on the Diag, winter this year has been unseasonably mild in the state of Michigan. As rampant carbon emissions cause higher temperatures, climate change is becoming increasingly concerning for scientists, activists and politicians alike. Two-thirds of Americans believe the government needs to be doing more to address climate change, but how those actions should take place is still up for debate.
In a new series from The Michigan Daily Opinion section we’re calling Jack v. Jack, we — Jack Brady and Jack Kapcar — will be presenting opposing arguments on the government’s role in solving the climate crisis. Both of us have written about climate before, and often take opposing stances on political issues. In this edition, Jack Brady will be arguing for limited government involvement in solving the climate crisis. Jack Kapcar will be arguing the opposite; government is a necessary third party that can steer businesses in a greener direction.
‘At best, government is incompetent. At worst, it is dangerously incompetent. Let’s find a better way’
A 2022 report by the United Nations warns that the window to address climate change is closing. Rising temperatures and increasingly severe weather events should shock lawmakers into action, but the response on Capitol Hill has been mixed. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retweeted a thread calling climate change a hoax last year. Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., predicted that we only have 12 years left before the end of the world (three of which we’ve already burned). With outright climate denial on the Right and doomsaying on the Left, realistic government action looks unlikely.
But realistic is what we need. Extremism doesn’t solve problems.
Liberals have successfully convinced the majority of American voters to support the Green New Deal, but to adopt such a proposal would be a mistake. Demanding a cleaner infrastructure, job market and power grid, its aims are well-intentioned. But good-hearted ambition requires specifics, and the Green New Deal offers very few. Calling to meet “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” while simultaneously creating “millions of good, high-wage jobs,” the 14-page document makes big promises without ever articulating a clear plan.
We must walk thoughtfully, never moving an inch without careful consideration. Clumsy, arbitrary steps ruin lives. 1.7 million Americans work directly for the fossil fuel industry, and millions more depend on it. Drastic shifts in policy will displace them. Although the Green New Deal promises “training … for workers affected by the transition,” the evidence suggests that it won’t work. The Department of Labor released a study in 2016 revealing that federal job training programs lead neither to higher wages nor the intended occupation for participants.
More feasible options, like carbon capture technology and nuclear energy, are far less risky to the public than large-scale government intervention. We still live in a world powered predominantly by fossil fuels, and any serious solution must reckon with this fact. Carbon capture is an effective way to combat climate change without moving away from non-renewable resources faster than we can handle. Factories and power plants can use this technology to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by over 90%, allowing the U.S. to ease into a sustainable future rather than plunge into it.
Nuclear power, as a clean and efficient alternative to carbon, must also play a larger role in the future. Solar panels and wind turbines rely upon the time of day and weather conditions to properly function, but nuclear power does not suffer from such limitations. Nuclear power does come with drawbacks — namely, radioactive waste — but they are far more manageable than maintaining a power grid entirely dependent on clear skies and a steady breeze. Already, most nuclear plants in the U.S. are controlled by private companies, making the industry highly subject to market forces.
At best, government is incompetent. At worst, it is dangerously incompetent. Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, rule by decree is never as successful as letting the American people and free market find their own solution. The climate crisis will not be solved by an executive order or a congressional wish list like the Green New Deal.
Government’s positive role to play is funding the right projects. Last August, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, dedicating $369 billion to fighting climate change, much of which will go toward further development of nuclear power. In 2020, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, introduced and saw passed two bills to subsidize more research into enhancing carbon capture. With an informed, practical and economic response, America can and must be a global leader in the fight against climate change.
‘Government is a necessary third party’
The core problem with relying on the private sector to solve climate change is a simple lesson that anyone who has taken Econ 101 can identify. Because carbon-emitting firms don’t need to account for the effects that their emissions have on the environment, those firms will naturally produce more than what is in society’s best interest. This is called a negative externality.
To efficiently account for this externality, a third party like the government must create barriers that force firms to lower emissions. Taxes and regulations can increase the cost of production and lower the amount of carbon produced, but even more effective is a cap-and-trade system.
Under cap-and-trade, a government distributes a “capped” number of permits that every emitter of greenhouse gasses can purchase. Those emitters can then “trade” those permits with other emitters at the price dictated by the market. Cap-and-trade was successfully deployed in the U.S. in the 1990s to limit emissions that cause acid rain, resulting in an 81% improvement in stream and river health today. Similar programs targeting carbon emissions have also been introduced in Europe with positive results.
Cap-and-trade represents a market-based solution to climate change. Often, when we speak about sweeping government solutions to major problems, those solutions are automatically associated with inefficiency and bureaucracy. There are, of course, popular examples to validate this feeling, but this doesn’t mean that the government is inherently bad at doing things. Government-led infrastructure spending produced some of the most groundbreaking projects of the past century and is one of the most effective means of stimulating economic growth.
To keep green energy investments efficient, the government needs to better recognize when and where its involvement is needed. In projects that require facilitation between business and community leaders or where the job is too large for the market to take on, government leadership is appropriate. In smaller industries, subsidizing existing projects and relying on market forces is more effective. Done correctly, government involvement brings a vital advantage in the fight against climate change.
Improving technology can also improve efficiency. By funding scientific studies and research at academic institutions, the government can help develop and implement new technologies that reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The U.S. does, by a large margin, the most research in the world, in part because of our prolific, government-supported academic-industrial complex. Continuing this innovative tradition requires government involvement, and can be used to combat climate change.
Regulations are another powerful tool that can address the climate crisis. It’s true that regulations can create incentives for finding loopholes, but they also incentivize the exploration of new technological alternatives. As more countries around the globe commit to lowering emissions, large firms are beginning to see the value in diversifying their revenue streams to become more climate-friendly. Oil-producing giant BP, for instance, caused shockwaves after it decided to restructure itself as a renewable energy provider. Further regulation of carbon will continue to push companies like BP toward exploring new sustainable technologies.
For too long, climate change has been framed as a solution for consumers to solve. Slogans like “Together, we can solve the climate crisis” that dot activist websites are inspiring, but using a burlap grocery bag can only go so far. Increasingly, we need large, sweeping government action to solve the climate-associated problems businesses and consumers are either unwilling or unable to address.
Government solutions to climate change should work with markets to create conditions where environmentally responsible companies thrive. This means accounting for environmental externalities with cap-and-trade programs, utilizing government-funded research programs and supporting green company adaptation by strictly regulating harmful practices. Big government can, at times, be “clumsy,” but in addressing climate, government is the only institution with enough power to adequately address the penultimate challenge of our time.
Jack Brady is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com. Jack Kapcar is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.