Climate change. Throughout the past two decades, those two words have gone from a little-known phrase used by environmentalists to part of our everyday culture. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the lengthy list of problems caused by a warming earth includes melting ice caps that cause ocean levels to rise and force millions of people out of their homes, a reduction in the supply of drinkable water and increased adverse health effects. And the IPCC believes that human activity is playing a big part in our planet’s warming. Climate change has become a serious concern, and many believe it’s our job to stop it.
With the escalating attention that climate change has received, the U.S. government is finally doing something about it. On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would drastically reduce the U.S.’s carbon dioxide emissions, which the IPCC’s research has shown to be warming Earth’s atmosphere.
But what if this legislation causes the exact same problems it’s trying to fix?
The legislation is a conglomeration of various methods to combat climate change, including ideas like mandating that 15 percent of the nation’s energy come from green power sources such as solar and wind by the year 2020 and enforcing strict energy-efficient building codes. The core of the bill is a cap-and-trade system that limits the amount of carbon dioxide companies can emit. Companies will initially have permits that allow them to emit carbon dioxide legally, but the number of permits will decrease over time. As this happens, companies will be forced to purchase the costly permits to emit carbon dioxide from each other, giving them an incentive to emit less.
With less carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere if the new legislation becomes law, the threat of climate change will be lessened. But what are the monetary costs of this legislation? Green power production is more expensive than producing electricity from carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels. And green energy production currently accounts for only about 2.5 percent of all energy production in the United States, according to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration. This means that to make our nation’s electricity production emission-free, the price of electricity for all Americans will have to go up. The price the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the climate change bill will incur on each household is an extra $127 per year.
Republicans call this figure a new $22 billion tax. But most taxes are paid only when money is exchanged. For example, income taxes are collected only when an individual makes an income. Sales taxes are paid only on non-food sales. But the new “tax” imposed by the climate change bill will be paid by everyone who uses electricity. And, unfortunately, it will be distributed among the rich and poor alike.
According to the Press Office of the Social Security Administration, there are 51 million Americans receiving social security benefits, many of whom live on a fixed income. Another 37.3 million live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These people — along with everyone else — have to pay electric bills to keep their food fresh in their refrigerator, their stove or microwave cooking and their furnace and air conditioning going. They are facing a huge increase in their necessary electricity bill with no way to pay for it.
With millions of Americans who live below the poverty level or on a fixed income forced to sacrifice to pay their electric bill when they have nothing left to sacrifice, many will be unable to pay all their necessary bills. Where will they make cuts to pay for their rising electric bill? Doctors’ visits and medication, while necessary, are an easy expense to cut. But for those who desperately need medication, other payments such as rent or the water bill may be cut in favor of maintaining electric power. Ultimately, the rise in electricity costs may force the impoverished and those on a fixed income out of their homes or make them sacrifice their water supplies or medicines.
These problems look familiar. They’re similar to some of the problems the climate change bill is trying to solve — climate change forcing people out of their homes, reducing their water supplies and affecting their health.
The climate change bill will now move to the Senate and — if approved — President Barack Obama. The Senate and Obama may want to take into consideration the fact that the bill causes many of the problems it’s trying to fix. Or, like the House, they may just choose to ignore the plight of the very Americans they’re responsible for.
Patrick Zabawa is the summer associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.