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US Senate action on climate change is urgently needed

Greg Studen  |  07/13/09 @ 11:48am

The great climate debate of 2009 is moving ahead on several fronts. You may recall that the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), otherwise known as Waxman-Markey, passed the House on May 26. A very useful bullet-point summary of the bill is available here. Briefly, the bill establishes a cap and trade program to control carbon dioxide emissions, as well as setting renewable energy standards and helping to support new energy technologies. Now the legislative battle has moved to the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works Committee began hearings on climate change on July 7. It is likely that the Senate bill will differ in many respects from the House version, since many issues are still highly controversial. The Senate will work on the bill this summer, and hope to give President Obama a bill that both the House and Senate can agree on in time for the UN-sponsored Copenhagen climate talks in December. Meanwhile, out in the real world, the scientific evidence of the dangerous consequences of global warming continues to mount. Two recent reports from highly respected sources are particularly troubling, and highlight the urgency of taking rapid and significant action to curb green house gas warming. On May 19, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report from its Center for Global Change Science, which was published in the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate. The study used a detailed computer simulation model of climate processes that has been refined since the early 1990's. This model is unique in that it tracks how changes in economic activity affect climate change. The model's projections indicate a median probability of surface warming of 5.2? C by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4?, under a "business as usual" scenario. By comparison, US policy makers and the UN climate team have agreed that we must limit warming to no more than 2? C in order to avoid very serious adverse consequences, including sea level rise, loss of glaciers, and widespread drought. The 2? C limit is widely believed to require that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere be limited to 450 parts per million. We're already at 390 ppm and rising, so rapid worldwide action is needed to stop the near certainty of catastrophic damage. On the international front, the world is preparing for a new round of climate talks in Copenhagen in December, where climate negotiators will try to hammer out an agreement to replace the widely discredited Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012. Part of that preparation was a "Climate Congress" held in Copenhagen on March 10-12, 2009. A panel of 84 scientists from research universities in countries all over the world gathered at the Congress to give an assessment of the state of climate science since the last UN International Panel on Climate Change report in 2007. Their conclusions are unequivocal: "Inaction is inexcusable." The Climate Congress report reviews key climate data and trends and makes findings in four key areas: 1. The Earth's climate is warming and the trend is getting worse. 2. The consequence of unchecked warming is social and environmental disaster. 3. Rapid, sustained, and effective action is needed to stop warming. 4. A wide range of benefits will flow from effective climate action. With strong confirmation of the effects of global warming coming in regularly, the urgency of action in the US Senate is paramount. Already the debate is shaping up. The "mainstream" position is represented by the ACES Act cap and trade system, buttressed by an offset program (see here for more on offsets), and considerable support for both new and old non-fossil fuel technologies. The bill tries to give something to all the constituencies that influence Congress, and as a result weighs in at over 1000 pages. The ACES bill passed by the House has been criticized by some environmental groups as too little and too late, with too many giveaways that weaken the bill. Jim Hansen, one of the early leaders in establishing the science of climate change, has recommended that the Congress reject the whole cap and trade appoach in favor of a carbon tax. Academic economists have long favored a carbon tax (which is really not a tax but a pollution charge or user fee on the emission of CO2), but leading environmental groups like NRDC and EDF have joined major industries and energy providers to lead cap and trade to a successful conclusion in the House. It seems unlikely that the carbon tax idea will resurface in Congress. Other environmental groups have criticized the ACES scheme as too late (caps don't start until 2012) and too little (only 17% CO2 reduction from 2005 levels by 2020). In addition, offset programs give the opportunity for industries to substantially delay actual CO2 reductions by purchasing offsets instead. Historically, offsets have been notoriously hard to monitor and subject to abuse. See here for detailed criticisms of the ACES. On the other hand, free-market advocates have roundly criticized ACES as being unecessary and way too costly. In the mainstream media, the Wall Street Journal has led the charge against the necessity of regulating climate change. The Obama administration is eager to see the legislation clear the Senate by the end of the summer, so that it can take a strong negotiating position into the round of UN climate talks in December. It seems highly likely that, without decisive US leadership, the international community will not adopt a strong program of CO2 regulation.

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