Backing down on climate change

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If changes in the public mood and the party alignment of the U.S. Senate have stalled healthcare legislation, they may have thrown the highly anticipated climate bill under a bus.

Even before Republican Scott Brown’s stunning election to the Senate in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts last month, it was proving hard to corral moderate Democrats to support a bill capping greenhouse gas emissions. Now they’re afraid to back anything that could be perceived as harmful to the economy. “Realistically, the cap-and-trade bills in the House and the Senate are going nowhere,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the New York Times. That’s a distressing comment coming from one of the three senators supposedly crafting a compromise climate bill that’s capable of achieving a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

President Obama has backed down too. On Tuesday, he signaled that cap-and-trade could go the way of healthcare reform’s “public option,” saying it could be removed from the climate bill. That would eliminate the market mechanism for pricing greenhouse gas pollution -- and without setting such a carbon price, other measures under consideration, such as a national renewable energy standard, won’t go far enough to significantly slow global warming.


Global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases rise every year, and within decades are expected to hit a worrisome atmospheric concentration threshold of 450 parts per million. At that point, there’s a high probability that average global temperatures will be at least 2 degrees Celsius higher than they were in 1850 (they’re already 1 C higher). Our children would live in a world of mass migrations, wars and conflicts fueled by scarce water supplies, infrastructure destruction as rising sea levels swallow coastlines, extreme weather events, wildfires and increased poverty and disease. These are not the predictions of wild-eyed liberal pundits but of thousands of climate researchers around the world, along with organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Academies of Sciences.

It gets worse. No one really knows what would happen if average temperatures hit 5 C higher than 1850 -- a level we could easily reach within a century under a business-as-usual scenario -- but changes to the physical geography of the planet become probable: land masses would vanish; ecosystems would collapse. Human civilization would change, and not for the better.

This process can still be slowed at a moderate economic cost, but time is short -- delays make both fighting climate change and adapting to it dramatically more expensive, and eventually could make it impossible. It’s foolish to say we can’t afford to pass a climate bill during a recession. We can’t afford not to.