While Washington Fiddles, Many States Facing Up to Threats of Climate Change
Steve BaragonaWASHINGTON —
When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced their Green New Deal resolution, Markey said it would be “the greatest blue-collar job creation program in a generation.”
President Donald Trump, on the other hand, said it would “put millions of Americans out of work.”
Battle lines have been drawn with the first major U.S. proposal to tackle climate change in nearly a decade: Does stopping global warming mean wrecking the economy? Or is failing to act worse?
In the coming months, Voice of America will explore the prospects for salvaging the environment without killing off jobs.
We will meet winners and losers in the energy transition. Our first stop will be in Markey’s home state of Massachusetts, where an energy transition is well underway. We will visit a town where one of the state’s last coal-fired power plants closed, shedding coal jobs but gaining a cutting-edge solar farm. We will see how Massachusetts’ investments in the green economy are paying dividends in jobs and economic growth.
Though the Senate has voted down Markey and Ocasio-Cortez’s nonbinding Green New Deal resolution, the proposal has put climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions back on the agenda on Capitol HIll. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a steadfast opponent of measures to reduce carbon emissions, now acknowledges global warming is a real and human-induced threat.
Trump, by contrast, has called climate change a hoax and sees unfettered production of coal, oil and natural gas as the path to economic expansion.
Hotter, drier, wetter
Pressure is growing on elected officials to do something. The impacts of climate change are increasingly obvious.
Eight of the 10 hottest years on record have piled up in just the last decade.
Hotter and drier conditions in California helped spread the wildfires that caused $24 billion in damage and claimed 106 lives last year. Those fires broke the record for area burned, a record that was set just the year before.
A warmer atmosphere holds more water, making epic soakers like last year’s Hurricane Florence more likely. That $24 billion disaster followed 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which did $127.5 billion in damage to Houston and the surrounding areas.
And this is just the beginning. Scientists from 13 government agencies estimated that if emissions remain high, extreme heat would slice $155 billion annually from labor productivity by 2090 as more days are too hot to work. Dwindling water supplies for cities and industries would take a $316 billion toll each year. Annual health care costs for West Nile Virus, just one of several diseases expected to rise with warming temperatures, would be $3 billion higher.
Polls show Americans feel the threat of a changing climate more strongly than ever. Seventy-three percent say global warming is happening, and 62 percent say it is mostly human-caused. Both figures are the highest since the Yale Program on Climate Communication started polling in 2008.
Two-thirds say they are “worried” or “very worried” about global warming. For the first time, that includes a third of conservative Republicans.
Meanwhile, the federal government is moving in the opposite direction. Trump has moved to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate treaty. His administration is working to loosen Obama administration regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and vehicles.
That has left states, local governments and businesses to fill in the gap. But it will not be easy or cheap.
One possible tool: Put a price on the carbon pollution that is causing global warming in the first place.
Raising the price reduces demand for more-polluting fuels and encourages companies and consumers to find cheaper, cleaner alternatives, economists say.
Pricing carbon would also raise revenue that can be returned to taxpayers or invested in reducing emissions.
Nine U.S. states price carbon through a cap-and-trade system, a market-based approach in which polluters buy permits for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit. California has its own program.
And economic growth in these states has continued as greenhouse gas emissions have declined.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric about how a carbon tax or a greenhouse gas tax would wreck the economy,” said Brookings Institution economist Adele Morris. “There’s absolutely no peer-reviewed evidence that supports that assertion.”
But these policies are not politically popular. A national cap-and-trade proposal died in Congress in 2010. Last November, Washington state voters rejected a carbon tax.
And they would not solve the problem on their own. Pledges the United States and others made in Paris will not achieve the ultimate goal of the accord: Keep global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
That would take a carbon price of at least $40 to $80 per ton, rising to $50 to $100 by 2030, according to a World Bank-backed commission. It’s only about $15 per ton in California, and $5 in the nine-state market.
“There’s an open question whether politically, it’s achievable to hit some of the temperature targets that scientists have recommended,” Morris said. “That’s the conundrum. What’s the willingness to pay (in carbon taxes) of the American electorate? How far can we go before we hit a wall?”
Filling the federal vacuum
As Trump moves to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate treaty, many states are moving forward on their own.
Most require power providers to source a percentage of their energy from renewable or zero-carbon sources. Several have recently increased these requirements. New Mexico recently joined California in aiming to be 100 percent renewable by mid-century.
And the private sector is stepping up, as well.
After Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris agreement, more than 2,000 businesses and investors declared that they continue to support the climate accord.
A group of large investors managing more than $30 trillion in assets is pushing major corporations in their portfolios to get on board.
“Any company that’s a high-emitting sector, we need to work with them to radically change their emissions or divest from them,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit. Ceres is a founding partner of the initiative known as Climate Action 100+.
Under pressure from the group, oil giants Shell and BP recently said they will tie executives’ bonuses to reaching climate goals. Major mining corporation Glencore agreed not to expand its coal mining business.
For investors, Lubber says, the economic risk comes not from fighting climate change.
“If we don’t stop global warming, we wreck the economy,” she said.
He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.