A price on carbon and an internationally coordinated and enforceable effort are surely the way forward.
by Michael Jones, Brunswick resident and associate professor of economics emeritus at Bowdoin College
Portland Press Herald op-ed
BRUNSWICK — The news Monday proclaimed two remarkable, and related, events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations committee comprised of the world’s pre-eminent experts on climate science, published a revised assessment of the progress and impact of climate change.
In brief, this report explains that climate change is happening more rapidly than expected, and that prevention of the dire consequences will require more stringent actions than previously contemplated and envisioned in the Paris Accord (which committed the nations of the world to an acceptable limit on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere).
The other event was the awarding of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics to William Nordhaus. A professor at Yale University and an economist’s economist admired universally by his peers, Nordhaus won the prize for his pioneering work on the economics of climate change.
Nordhaus has led the research on how economic activity affects the climate, and, in turn, on how adverse climate will damage the economy. His findings help us understand the crucial issue: Will the costs of fighting climate change today justify the benefits of better climate in the future? His answer, resoundingly, is yes: The sacrifice we make today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions pales beside the damage to our descendants and to our planet for failing to act.
The intersection of these two stories should make blindingly clear two aspects of climate change:
• No. 1: There is no reasonable debate on the existence of climate change; on its cause – greenhouse gas emissions, largely from the burning of fossil fuels – and on the tragedy of failing to act. If you doubt the science, please read the IPCC report and listen to the Nobel committee. The evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible that our world is in peril and that it is up to us, now, to do something about it.
• No. 2: Solving the problem will not be easy, but we know two essential components of the solution. Both the IPCC report and Nordhaus’ writings insist that mitigation of climate change requires a price on carbon and a coordinated international effort to establish such a price worldwide.
A price on carbon, most easily implemented by placing a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels, will face each of us with the damage we create by burning fossil fuels. It will lead us to use green alternatives and develop innovative ways to replace our dependence on oil, coal and gas. And, it will insulate the economy by making our sacrifice today as small as it can possibly be.
International coordination, anchored by a common price on carbon, is essential. No country sees the benefits of fighting climate change on its own. It pays off, from our perspective, only if we all do it together. These two initiatives – a price on carbon and an internationally coordinated and enforceable effort – are surely the way forward.
These news stories remind us that it is no exaggeration to call climate change an existential problem. It is that important.
They also remind us just how ignorant and pathetic has been the response of our federal government to the threat. Calling this problem a “hoax”; weakening federal constraints on our consumption of fossil fuels; and torpedoing our ability to lead the world in a coordinated approach are actions that anger and puzzle me. What will it take to make our officials see the problem and do something about it?