Meaningless climate policy

Alan Braunholtz

Headlines can be misleading. “Senate endorses climate-change policies” suggests action when the story reveals the policies chosen are of the “do nothing” variety. The Senate adopted a measure relying only on voluntary industry actions to reduce CO2 emissions. The goal is to curtail the rising rate of CO2 emissions, a big difference from actually trying to reduce carbon dioxide pollution.”No one disputes if we should act, but how to act?” said Sen. Hagel, the sponsor. I guess doing nothing while pretending otherwise is a form of acting. John McCain called this measure “meaningless.” An alternative headline: “Senate endorses meaningless climate change policies.”While Congress does very little, there’s growing pressure from corporate and civic sources for some real emissions control. Global corporations are living in a schizophrenic world. There’s the U.S. market with its happy bubble of no carbon limits, and the rest of the world where carbon has a cost either directly due to emissions regulations or indirectly, as there is consumer pressure for efficient, non-polluting technology.It’s hard to plan future investments in two different worlds, especially when many CEOs (GE, BP) see the evidence for climate change and know that their next investment cycle will have to assume mandated reductions in CO2. It’s inevitable. Their engineers tell them they can do it, but there’s little incentive yet. They look to countries where investment and innovation in this future technology are stimulated by emission standards.New Zealand is the first country to put in a real carbon tax of $15 NZ per ton of CO2, a great first step to raise consumer awareness. There is some talk on the idea of imposing a goods surcharge on countries that won’t regulate. It’s an unfair advantage subsidized by the whole world. Polluting is cheaper for the manufacturer but at a cost to everyone else, so tax the irresponsible countries.Other businesses see the chance to make money by trading in carbon credits, a potentially lucrative new market. But without regulated emissions, there’s nothing to trade. It’s a little weird that the common property of the air we breathe can be given to corporations, which then sell and buy the right to pollute. But at the moment they do it for free.Any emissions control would also push us away from oil to cleaner fuels, a big positive for national security.Mayors across the U.S. are getting together and committing to meeting Kyoto (a 7 percent reduction) by themselves. Cities already address smog pollution, so it’s not that big a conceptual step. They can try to do this with incentives (mass transit, pedestrian centers, building codes) and financial incentives. But nationally enforced limits on carbon dioxide would provide a stick to make any carrots taste sweeter still.We won’t get national limits till public opinion accepts climate change. Without decent reporting on this issue, pubic opinion will remain confused, the goal of all those industry-sponsored research foundations. Newspapers are too attached to conflict (it sells) and give equal space to conflicting views. This is fine for opinions such as “bicycles have no place getting in my way on the road.” With climate change skeptics, it’s like giving the Flat Earth Society equal space with the National Geographic Society. The vast weight of scientific opinion finds human-induced climate change, but a handful of skeptics get the same coverage. No wonder the public is confused. They can’t see the huge scientific consensus linking climate change and fossil fuels. Newton’s second law probably beats it, but not much else. Still, if we can deny evolution, we can deny anything.Reporters focus on the conflicts, writing stories on the politics not the science. The Senate’s recent decisions are political defeats for environmentalists. They’ll also have impacts on the Earth, but you’re unlikely to read about these. These aren’t as easy of stories to investigate and write. Climate change will offer huge dramas, varying outcomes and difficult choices. Where should environmental refugees go? If Pacific Islanders lose their homes because their islands are sinking because of climate-change -nduced ocean rising, does that matter? Economics of prevention versus reacting to the changes?In 2001 much print went to Bush’s dismissal of the International Panel of Climate Change findings, instead asking for the National Academy of Science to report. This played as a political story dismissing a U.N. body to favor a more reliable U.S. one. Few bothered to note the NAS already had a position of reducing emissions to limit climate change, and neither the president nor the press bothered to tell us.Kyoto offered a breath of cooperation and action in 1997 before the oil lobby sowed their seeds of doubt. With the rumbling of civic and corporate pressure, we may be able to get back to where we were then, 10 years later.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado

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