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From Copenhagen to Raleigh

World and local events next week highlight the need for responding to global warming with smart, public solutions

The world's attention will turn to global warming next week. Thank goodness. It may drive the anti-government crowd and some Middle East oil bosses crazy, but anyone who cares about the long-term health and well-being of the human species should be glad that the United Nations Climate Change Conference [1] will convene December 7th through the 18th in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The objective of the event is to negotiate the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which set international goals for greenhouse emissions reductions in 1997 but was, sadly, never ratified by the United States. To its great credit, the White House has announced that President Obama will participate in the conference on December 9, before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. He will commit the United States to reducing greenhouse gas emissions "in the range of 17% below 2005 levels in 2020," or three percent below 1990 levels of emissions. The U.S. delegation will include a number of Cabinet-level officials, who "will keynote a series of events highlighting actions by the Obama Administration to provide domestic and global leadership in the transition to a clean energy economy." 

Fortunately, as the inconvenient truth of global warming becomes more and more obvious to just about everyone paying attention, even the American corporate elite are beginning to face the fact that business as usual in the area of carbon pollution is an unacceptable path for humankind. Whether it's at Apple Computer, Nike, or GE, it appears that even corporate executives like the idea of their offspring and descendants surviving into the 22nd Century and beyond. 

Here's the New York Times' centrist columnist, Tom Friedman quoting a Republican governor in a recent interview in, of all places, that ultra-lefty media outlet, Golf Digest [2]:

"Arnold Schwarzenegger said it best: ‘Your son is sick. Ninety-eight doctors give you one diagnosis, two doctors give you another. Who are you going to go with?' Well, why would it be the conservative position to go with the two? That's not conservative, that's crazy."

Friedman continued:

"Why do conservatives deny global warming — why do they go with the two? No. 1, because combating climate change requires government policy, and most conservatives hate the idea of more government regulation. Because they hate the prescription, they deny the diagnosis. And No. 2, scientists tend to focus on what they don't know more than what they do know. And there are a lot of things we still don't know about the climate. But we know the difference between climate variability and climate change, and right now the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is well outside the variability pattern — and that's quite quantifiable….Remember, the difference between the world frozen over, in an ice ball, and the warming period we're in now is just 6 degrees centigrade. A change of just 1 degree can have a huge effect."

Meanwhile, on the homefront

Of course, however real and sobering the threat posed by the climate crisis, turning the broad targets and promises of a grand global event into workable and effective policies that will actually be implemented in the automobiles and smokestacks of America, is easier said than done. Ultimately, before the United States can make real headway on controlling carbon emissions, it will have to pass new laws and adopt new policies to curb and encourage various behaviors. This almost assuredly means the adoption of "cap and trade" legislation of the kind currently under consideration in Washington (see below).   

In keeping with this imperative to "think globally and act locally," on the same day that President Obama is in Copenhagen (next Wednesday, December 9), NC Policy Watch will convene a special "Crucial Conversation" luncheon [3] in downtown Raleigh on federal climate legislation. The event will feature Todd Wooten, director of the Southeast Climate Resources Center at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy [4] Solutions at Duke University and a former legislative counsel to U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Wooten will offer a plainspoken explanation of what Congress is actually seriously considering, its pluses and minuses, what it might and likely won't accomplish and what it is likely to mean for average Americans. He will be joined on the podium by Veronica Butcher of the North Carolina Conservation Network [5] (who will describe some of the current political realities surrounding the climate legislation – particularly for the North Carolina congressional delegation) and Dr. Steve Jackson of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center [6], who will spell out some of the ways that the legislation can be designed in order to spare low and moderate income people from bearing the brunt of the near-term costs.

"Cap and trade"

The legislation in question, of course, would enact a version of a "cap and trade" system. The national research and advocacy group, the Center for American Progress [7] explains the concept this way:

"The cap: Each large-scale emitter, or company, will have a limit on the amount of greenhouse gas that it can emit. The firm must have an "emissions permit" for every ton of carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere. These permits set an enforceable limit, or cap, on the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that the company is allowed to emit. Over time, the limits become stricter, allowing less and less pollution, until the ultimate reduction goal is met. This is similar to the cap and trade program enacted by the Clean Air Act of 1990, which reduced the sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, and it met the goals at a much lower cost than industry or government predicted.

The trade: It will be relatively cheaper or easier for some companies to reduce their emissions below their required limit than others. These more efficient companies, who emit less than their allowance, can sell their extra permits to companies that are not able to make reductions as easily. This creates a system that guarantees a set level of overall reductions, while rewarding the most efficient companies and ensuring that the cap can be met at the lowest possible cost to the economy."

Naturally, there are innumerable details and challenges to be ironed out in bringing such a system to fruition. Many critics on the right decry cap and trade as government takeover that will stifle economic development. Meanwhile, some progressives assail it as regressive tax and a sell-out that sidesteps the kind of dramatic societal changes that will be necessary to bring about a post-carbon economy.

For better or worse however, at this point, cap and trade is really the only viable policy solution on the table. And it is a table that runs the risk of being under water before too long. According to the recently released "Copenhagen Diagnosis," [8] from some of the world's top climate scientists, the situation is increasingly dire:

"If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly. To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – need to be reached well within this century." 

Going forward

There is, of course, a minuscule chance that the 98 scientists are wrong and that the two skeptics are right. It's happened before in human history. It could happen again. Given the uncertainty of our remedies, might this be enough reason to delay action?

The answer, unfortunately, is that we have no such luxury. According to most credible experts, if catastrophe is to be avoided, action must commence right away. Wait around to be more sure and we're very likely to regret it.

Happily, the potential downsides to taking aggressive action are minimal. Yes, change may pose challenges to our economy. It may well bring about some temporary unfairness and inequities. On this question, however, Tom Friedman may put things best:

"And by the way, what if we're wrong and there is no climate change? Well, by doing everything possible to address it, we will still use less water, stimulate new energy savings and, in time, money-saving technologies, enjoy cleaner air, and preserve more forests and trees and animals."

Sounds like a "win-win" solution that all of us ought to learn a lot more about right away. Please join us next week.