Con­fronting cli­mate change

Pol­i­tics is to blame for the large di­vide be­tween sci­en­tists and en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Vinod Thomas Vinod Thomas ( was for­merly the di­rec­tor gen­eral of in­de­pen­dent eval­u­a­tion at the World Bank and at the Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank; he lives in Bethesda.

Sci­en­tific ev­i­dence on man-made global warm­ing is so loud and clear that lead­ers of 195 coun­tries adopted the first cli­mate agree­ment at a sum­mit in Paris in 2015 to re­duce car­bon emis­sions. But to ap­pre­ci­ate the di­vide be­tween the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus and cli­mate ac­tion, one only needs to see the ne­glect of the is­sue in the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

This gulf be­tween sci­ence and pol­icy rests on pol­i­tics that see cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion as a drag on eco­nomic growth. For ex­am­ple, Mary­land of­fi­cials are re­sist­ing mak­ing car­bon cuts from power plants for fear they will raise power bills and hurt the state’s econ­omy.

Cli­mate abate­ment ver­sus eco­nomic growth is a dan­ger­ous co­nun­drum. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers ar­gue that cli­mate mea­sures ham­per growth. But cli­mate change costs lives and money in dam­ages lo­cally and glob­ally. The deadly floods in Louisiana and the se­vere fire sea­son in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia are just two re­cent re­minders of the spike in cli­mate-re­lated floods, storms and heat waves. It is in­ac­tion, not ac­tion, on cli­mate change that im­pedes growth.

Sooner or later, the world will have to switch to a low-car­bon path out of ne­ces­sity. But if it has to take Ar­maged­don to turn around cli­mate per­cep­tions, the re­sult­ing hard land­ing will be too costly to bear. Con­sid­er­ing that we spend mil­lions of dol­lars on re­search and pol­icy wor­ry­ing about (milder) fi­nan­cial crises, the cru­cial ques­tion is: What will it take to gen­er­ate a soft, rather than a hard, land­ing with cli­mate change?

First, for lo­cal en­ti­ties to take strong mea­sures to lower their car­bon foot­print, there needs to be some­as­sur­ance that oth­ers will do so too so that their im­me­di­ate com­pet­i­tive­ness is not eroded. In the U.S., for ex­am­ple, states need to move to­gether. A pro­posal to in­crease car­bon emis­sion cuts in Mary­land and eight other East Coast states that make up the Re­gional Green­house Gas Ini­tia­tive has a prayer be­cause it is part of a re­gional agree­ment to re­duce power plant pol­lu­tion, giv­ing some as­sur­ance that the state’s com­pet­i­tive­ness would be main­tained. Even then it is prov­ing to be a hard sell.

At the na­tional level, the ma­jor emit­ters — in­clud­ing the U.S., China, In­dia, Rus­sia and Ja­pan — would need to move in tan­dem, both to en­sure that each stays the course and to have an ad­e­quate com­bined ef­fect. You need­strong po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship to sig­nal that as a group they would phase out burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els and switch to re­new­ables.

Se­cond, we need much faster dis­sem­i­na­tion of new tech­nolo­gies that prom­ise to lower the cost of pro­duc­ing re­new­ables. The al­ter­na­tive-en­ergy in­dus­try has made strides in bring­ing down the up­front cost of re­new­able en­ergy, but fos­sil fu­els like coal are still cheaper. We need taxes on fos­sil fu­els like coal, much like taxes on cig­a­rettes, to off­set their ill ef­fects, and sub­si­dies for the ef­fi­cient de­vel­op­ment of re­new­ables to en­cour­age their salu­tary im­pact.

To un­der­pin the use of new tech­nolo­gies, this is also the time to put into ef­fect fi­nanc­ing mod­els that would fa­cil­i­tate a switch to a low-car­bon growth path. Pub­lic funds need to be mo­bi­lized with great ur­gency as the Paris meet­ings sought, and the pri­vate sec­tor needs to lever­age that in mak­ing cli­mate fi­nanc­ing vi­able.

Third, pub­lic opin­ion must sway cli­mate ac­tion. The enor­mous sci­en­tific and re­cent eco­nomic work that has been done should be used to in­form the elec­tion de­bates. Peo­ple need to re­al­ize that cli­mate pol­icy needs a big boost to keep warm­ing well be­low 2 de­grees Cel­sius. At the Paris meet­ings, coun­tries com­mit­ted to In­tended Na­tion­ally De­ter­mined Con­tri­bu­tions (INDC), but pub­lic opin­ion needs to sup­port con­crete mea­sures.

New re­search pub­lished in Na­ture finds that while these con­tri­bu­tions will lower green­house gas emis­sions, the me­dian sce­nario will still re­sult in a warm­ing of 2.6 to 3.1 de­grees Cel­sius by 2100. So pub­lic opin­ion must press coun­tries and lo­cal­i­ties to over­shoot the cur­rent in­tended con­trib­u­tors.

This three-pronged at­tack on cli­mate change is a tall or­der. But deal­ing with the lo­cal fall­out from run­away global warm­ing will be far taller.


Danielle Blount feeds her 3-month-old daugh­ter as she waits to be res­cued from flood­wa­ters near Walker, La., last month. A fed­eral study found that man-made cli­mate change dou­bled the chances for the type of heavy down­pours that caused Louisiana ’s floods.

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