Time for a Cat­e­gory 5 storm of in­no­va­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - David.von­drehle@wash­post.com

Like most peo­ple (ac­cord­ing to polls), I be­lieve green­house gases trap heat — a fact eas­ily proved by ex­per­i­ments sim­ple enough to per­form at home. More green­house gases will trap more heat. And when tem­per­a­tures rise on Earth, they im­pact the en­tire ecosys­tem.

The case for lim­it­ing emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide and other green­house gases is all right there. Most peo­ple get it. Yet many of our most pas­sion­ate cit­i­zens on this topic seem to be­lieve that only panic will pro­duce re­sults. In try­ing to stim­u­late alarm, how­ever, they of­ten wind up for­ti­fy­ing the dwin­dling but stub­born cadre of skep­tics.

Case in point: Hur­ri­cane Florence. As the cy­clone worked its way up the Saf­fir-Simp­son scale of storm strength, I braced for the in­evitable pro­nounce­ments that cli­mate change is mak­ing our storms worse, with Florence as Ex­hibit A. Then the in­cred­i­ble com­plex­ity of cli­mate kicked in. The cy­clone went to pieces (as most of them, thank­fully, do) and stag­gered ashore as a very wet and dan­ger­ous Cat­e­gory 1 storm. Power was knocked out, homes were flooded, trees were snapped or torn up by the roots. An un­pleas­ant, un­wel­come vis­i­tor, but hardly un­prece­dented.

Cli­mate ac­tivists should get out of the pre­dic­tion busi­ness, be­cause cli­mate is too com­plex to be re­duced to a sin­gle fac­tor. The strong­est storm to hit the United States con­tin­ues to be the La­bor Day hur­ri­cane of — wait for it — 1935, which wiped out en­tire towns in the Florida Keys. Run­ner-up: Camille in 1969. Bil­lions and bil­lions and bil­lions of tons of car­bon diox­ide have been pumped into the at­mos­phere since those storms raged.

Look­ing back­ward rather than ahead, how­ever, a ten­ta­tive case, a hy­poth­e­sis, could be ven­tured that we are in fact see­ing greater fre­quency of strong storms. Since the in­tro­duc­tion of weather satel­lites in the 1960s made com­pre­hen­sive track­ing pos­si­ble, me­te­o­rol­o­gists have cal­cu­lated the to­tal en­ergy of At­lantic cy­clones each year. All seven sea­sons of great­est hur­ri­cane en­ergy have come since 1995. Even so, the years from 2013 through 2015 were un­usu­ally calm.

But de­bat­ing over dooms­days only em­pow­ers the cli­mate skep­tics, be­cause it takes a topic of con­sen­sus and puts it in the realm of dis­pute. Peo­ple don’t need more fear of cli­mate change. They need more hope for so­lu­tions. And one sin­gle step could gal­va­nize the awe­some power of Amer­ica’s econ­omy to­ward an­swers: cap and trade.

Cap­ping to­tal car­bon diox­ide emis­sions na­tion­wide and al­low­ing pro­duc­ers to trade emis­sion per­mits are not an in­tru­sion on the free mar­ket, as some con­ser­va­tives have com­plained of the trail­blaz­ing pro­gram un­der­way in Cal­i­for­nia. In­stead, cap and trade em­pow­ers the mar­ket. As Adam Smith ex­plained, the wealth-cre­at­ing ge­nius of a free mar­ket stems from its abil­ity to ef­fi­ciently gather vast stores of data about peo­ple’s needs and wants and con­vey that in­for­ma­tion to pro­duc­ers through the sim­ple sig­nal of what peo­ple are will­ing to pay. Good old sup­ply and de­mand.

Car­bon emis­sions im­pose so­cial costs. But most of the U.S. econ­omy is blind to that in­for­ma­tion. With­out an over­all cap on emis­sions, the mar­ket thinks that sup­ply — in this case, the abil­ity to emit car­bon diox­ide into the at­mos­phere — is in­fi­nite and thus the cost of emit­ting is zero. Cap and trade switches on a price sig­nal, which in turn fo­cuses the cre­ativ­ity, in­no­va­tion and ef­fi­ciency of the en­tire econ­omy on cut­ting emis­sions with­out sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity of life. The free mar­ket does what it does best (more Adam Smith): low­ers pro­duc­tion costs while main­tain­ing and en­hanc­ing the ap­peal of its prod­ucts.

Op­po­nents of cap and trade say the idea has failed in Europe, but the hic­cups in that mar­ket are at­trib­ut­able to weak­ness of the Euro­pean Union — Brus­sels set its cap too high — and the slow Euro­pean econ­omy. A more re­veal­ing case comes from here at home. In 1995, the United States capped sul­fur diox­ide emis­sions (the pri­mary cause of acid rain) and is­sued trad­able per­mits. By 2010, ac­cord­ing to one gim­let-eyed as­sess­ment, emis­sions were down nearly 70 per­cent and health-care costs were re­duced by as much as $100 bil­lion.

Ad­mit­tedly, car­bon emis­sions are a more com­plex mar­ket than sul­fur emis­sions. Ev­ery­one has a car­bon foot­print, while sul­fur diox­ide is mainly a byprod­uct of coal-burn­ing power plants. But there are many ubiq­ui­tous com­modi­ties in our lives: vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one uses steel, pa­per, elec­tric­ity, wa­ter, wheat and so on. Some­how, the mar­ket man­ages to put a price on all of them and ef­fi­ciently col­lect those costs from will­ing con­sumers.

When car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions re­flect what most of us agree to be their true costs, cap­i­tal­ists through­out the econ­omy will turn their re­sources to cut­ting those costs. They will dis­cover greater ef­fi­cien­cies. They will in­vest in al­ter­na­tive en­ergy. They will sink money into in­ven­tions and tech­nolo­gies un­dreamed of to­day. They will move with speed and agility no gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy can match.

You might say I’m pre­dict­ing a Cat­e­gory 5 storm of hope. But this is the U.S. econ­omy I’m talk­ing about; its po­ten­tial power is never in doubt.


Emer­gency work­ers from New York res­cue a man from flood­ing caused by Hur­ri­cane Florence in River Bend, N.C., on Fri­day.

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