A few weeks ago, the Daily published a viewpoint about the costs of Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade system (Cap-and-trade fantasies, 01/27/09). Although there were some merits to the article, the author’s arguments regarding the effectiveness of this policy and the importance of climate change were seriously flawed.
The majority of scientists and policymakers agree that climate change is real and significant and the time for debate is over. We’ve all read the statistics about temperatures changing, sea levels rising and melting glaciers. It may be hard to imagine how those changes will affect daily lives, but the effects are already occurring in real and tangible ways. Drought and changing rain patterns have turned once-fertile farms in Sub-Saharan Africa into deserts, and occasional flash floods strip the land of topsoil, causing more farmers to move to cities. If global average temperature rises two degrees (it’s already risen by one in the past century), scientists predict that Bangladesh will experience such severe flooding that virtually the entire country will be under water.
Implementing a cap-and-trade system would narrow the scope of the problems associated with climate change. As the world’s leader in energy use, we can have a tremendous impact both domestically and abroad. President Obama has not promised to end global warming and, like all of us, he understands we cannot solve the problem completely. But the costs of doing nothing would be far greater than the cost of action. Many of the criticisms concerning the cap-and-trade program stem from the potential effects on the manufacturing and energy industries. What these critics fail to realize is that climate change will have a far more devastating economic effect in other sectors. From 1980 to 1989, for example, the United States suffered $80 billion of weather-related property damage. From 1988 to 1997, the country incurred $290 billion in damages, of which only $83 billion was covered by insurance. If climate change continues on its current path, U.S. agricultural yields could decrease 10 percent by 2020. Though the immediate cost of regulating emissions is higher than what we are used to, we cannot afford to do nothing.
Now is the time to make these kinds of changes. The previous viewpoint argued that the fragile economy cannot handle the changes involved in a cap-and-trade program. Yet this ignores the benefits of increased efficiency and investment in new technology that lead to more jobs. Furthermore, the U.S. is hardly the first nation to implement such a program. The European Union started a similar system in January 2005 that resulted in a much higher reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than the U.S. without the catastrophic economic consequences some predict for Obama’s initiative.
There are already cap-and-trade programs in place even within the U.S. The Chicago Climate Exchange, a carbon credit exchange that businesses voluntarily join, started in 2000 with several big-name members, including DuPont and Ford Motor Company. Ten Northeastern states began their own trading system, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, earlier this year.
There is also the criticism that costs will be transferred to the consumer. Regardless of any cap-and-trade system, energy costs are going to increase as traditional energy sources become scarce. no matter what, increased conservation will be necessary. Americans have enjoyed a century of cheap energy and, as a result, use more than anyone else. In 2002, the U.S. created 20 tons per capita of greenhouse gas, compared to 12.2 tons per capita for all wealthy nations and the 3 tons per capita global average. There is huge potential for energy conservation, which could balance out increases in household electricity costs. Some electricity companies are already encouraging people to save electricity through metering and other monitoring methods.
No one is claiming this will be easy and Obama certainly never claimed to be able to “solve” climate change. But the risk involved in doing nothing is too great to ignore. Even if all the critics are right and the effects of climate change are not catastrophic, all we will have done is ensure that our children and grandchildren will have cleaner air, cleaner water, and all of the resources that we have been able to enjoy. If that is the minimum that we will accomplish from taking action through government programs like cap-and-trade, it will be well worth it.
Megan Spitz, Rachel Slezak and Sarah Duffy are members of the College Democrats’ Environmental Committee.