By William S. Becker
After a somnambulant decade, Congress is finally having a Rip Van Winkle moment on global climate change. A special House committee has been formed to focus on the climate crisis. Several additional House committees have put the subject on their agendas.
Unfortunately, the necessary climate conversation is still being stalled in the Senate with partisan “gotcha” games orchestrated by Mitch McConnell. He has scheduled a vote on the Green New Deal this week hoping that Democrats, including some running for president, will vote “yes” so that he can brand them as socialists.
How can we make sure the debate about climate action is honest and substantive while the subject is hot? It’s one thing for Congress to start talking about climate change again; it’s another thing to make sure the conversation gets past platitudes, junk research, superficialities and political posturing. Here are some suggestions.
Keep the heat on: Hot topics get cold very fast in Washington as new crises and contentious issues come along. Members of Congress are susceptible to issue fatigue, too, especially if public attention turns to something else. The climate-action community, including young Americans whose future is at stake, can’t let that happen. The thousands who took to the streets at mid-month must do it again and again until national leaders approve a viable plan to shift the economy to clean energy.
Put a price on inaction: There should be no debate about the costs of climate action without citing the much greater costs of doing nothing. For example, taxing carbon is one of the most important things Congress can do. But in a new report, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) points out that carbon pricing scenarios “do not generally consider the benefits that would be gained by reducing GHG emissions and avoiding climate change and its adverse impacts”. Talking about costs but not benefits is only half a conversation.
The transition to a zero-carbon economy offers countless benefits, and that’s part of the problem. Many cannot be counted, not in dollars and cents. Important benefits like a better quality of life, or a family’s security from disasters, or the avoidance of international conflicts, are literally priceless. Other benefits, like making it less necessary for millions of climate refugees to flee drought, famine and other impacts, depend on estimates that are easy for skeptics to dispute.
However, we know many of the costs that climate change has imposed on the United States already. We know the risk, if not the certainty, that they will get worse. One benefit of decisive climate action is that we can avoid some of those future costs and the pressure on taxpayers, communities and families to pay them. That is a benefit.
The Government Accountability Office reported last year that climate change cost taxpayers $350 billion over the previous decade; it predicts the cost will be $35 billion annually by mid-century. The United States suffered more than $8 billion annually in damages just from freshwater flooding over the last 30 years. Those costs are rapidly increasing, too. The economy lost between $18 billion and $33 billion each year due to weather-related power outages between 2003 and 2013, according to the Department of Energy (DOE).
On the other hand, DOE points out that the United States is the world’s largest producer and consumer of environmental technologies. In 2015, our environmental technology and services sector employed 1.6 million people, had revenues of $320 billion, and exported goods and services worth $51 billion. Some 2.25 million Americans already work in the energy efficiency sector. These industries would expand in any credible campaign to prevent more severe climate change. They would likely capture their share of the growing global market for these technologies, creating U.S jobs and GDP.
Another example of benefits: DOE helps develop and periodically update national model energy codes for buildings. The latest code is expected to save $5 billion every year for homes and businesses. As building technologies improve, so can the code. About 90% of residential, 60% of commercial, and 30% of industrial energy is used by appliances and equipment that is subject to federal minimum efficiency standards. Between 2009 and 2030, cost-effective efficiency standards are expected to save consumers more than $545 billion in utility costs and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more 2.26 billion metric tons – a good reason to defend energy efficiency standards against the Trump Administration’s deregulation frenzy.
Improve the social cost of carbon calculation: One metric for estimating avoided climate costs is the social cost of carbon (SCC). It indicates the long-term economic, social and environmental damage done by a ton of carbon dioxide pollution in a given year. Experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences developed a SCC methodology in 2010 and updated it in 2017, calculating that the social costs of each ton of carbon could be as high as $62 a ton. The team acknowledged, however, that there was insufficient data to include all of the physical, environmental and social damages from carbon pollution.
The National Academies recommends that the SCC be updated every five years to reflect new knowledge about climate impacts. Congress should make sure that happens.
Reject junk research. Numbers don’t lie, but the people who use them often do. Numbers can be manipulated so support nearly any position. Knowing that, Congress should refuse to accept any study that has not been independently peer-reviewed or verified by the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office or similar nonpartisan numbers crunchers.
A classic example of why this is necessary was the unsubstantiated cost figure McConnell tossed into an exchange in the Senate about the Green New Deal. McConnell and some of his colleagues claimed it would cost $93 trillion, more than enough to “buy every American a Ferrari”. It turned out the number came from a right-leaning think tank based on insufficient information.
Use full life-cycle analysis. Debates about the benefits and costs of climate action should be based on full life-cycle information. That means all of the quantifiable impacts of a resource or a policy from “cradle to grave”.
For example, most of the current proposals for a carbon tax would base it on the carbon content of oil, natural gas and coal. But fossil fuels are not “one price fits all” resources. There are many different types of oil, coal and gas, each with its own carbon profile. If we want a carbon tax to do the most good, it should be based on the carbon produced when a fuel is extracted, processed, and transported as well as burned. Analysts at Stanford University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimate, for example, that for some types of petroleum, as much as 38% of the total carbon footprint would be uncounted without a life-cycle calculation.
Be clear about who pays. Congress should be transparent about where the money would come from to mitigate climate change. Much of the cost would come from other sources than the federal government: local governments, private investors, third-party financing, personal financing, bond revenues and so on.
Much, but not necessarily all, of a carbon tax would trickle down to consumers. But cost-effective energy efficiency improvements can help offset the tax for businesses, industry, local governments and households. In addition, maybe Congress could do something to encourage investors to bet less on fossil fuels and more on carbon-free energy (see chart).
New taxpayer costs would be reduced if governments redirected or more carefully focused existing programs so they reduced pollution and improved resilience.
Last but certainly not least are the revenues the government could recapture and redirect by eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, especially in light of the 2017 corporate tax reforms. It makes absolutely no sense for national policy to try to reduce carbon emissions on one hand while subsidizing them on the other.
Don’t depend on Bright Shiny Objects. Congress should not assume that a carbon tax alone, or new technologies alone, will give us the emission reductions we need to achieve a net-zero carbon economy in the next 30 years. We will need a variety of tools and programs.
Insofar as Congress considers spending money on new technologies (technical term: Bright Shiny Objects), it should base decisions the life-cycle impacts of the technologies and the fuels they enable. An example is the coal industry’s search for the holy grail of carbon capture. Even if we could capture all the carbon emissions when coal is burned, the environmental impacts of production, processing and wastes still qualify it as a dirty fuel.
Call B.S. For many years now, the need to address climate change has been stalled by the same formula for contrived denial that we saw in years past from the tobacco industry. We’ve heard that there is no climate problem; climate science is wrong; there’s nothing we can do; solutions are too expensive; and environmentalists want to take away our freedoms, SUVs and hamburgers. We still hear politicians claim that America should not do anything because it can’t solve the climate crisis alone — an argument that completely ignores the commitments that all other nations but ours have made under the Paris accord.
There will be many forces trying to assert themselves if Congress gets serious about national action to avoid catastrophic climate change. They will include special interests, false facts, bogus studies, political grandstanding, and pressure from the groups that have most to gain or lose. That’s to be expected. But this time, voters, the news media, scientists, think tanks, NGOs, presidential candidates and members of Congress should make sure that the conversation about confronting global warming is held to very high standards.