Despite what many GOP contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination say, the Earth really is heating up, and the costs of global warming may be drastically higher than previous estimates suggested. Meanwhile, investigators in the so-called ‘Climategate’ scandal have now once again cleared climate scientist Michael Mann of all charges of misconduct. It turns out the East Anglia scandal was largely a manufactured one. The political implications of all of this are serious.
Rather than face the overwhelming scientific consensus, one of the two major political parties in the United States is determined to discredit, through whatever means, the fact of anthropogenic global warming. The conservative media machine is only too happy to lead the charge, even if that means muddying the name of a respected climate scientist in the process. It’s all preposterous of course. As Elizabeth Kolbert notes in the New Yorker, “No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax.”
Such is the nature of conspiracy theories. Fox News and the conservative talk radio circuit push fake scandals like ‘Climategate’ to score political points. Like the shoddy faux-science used to link autism to vaccines, critics of global warming pick the one scientist in a thousand who backs their views and ignore the vast consensus.
Even conservatives who admit that climate change exists often take the position that there is nothing we can do about it without severely harming global GDP growth. This is a reasonable enough position to take – policy, after all, is anything but hard science. Surveying the scientific facts on the ground is one thing – crafting sensible policies to deal with something as complicated and dire as global climate change is something else entirely.
Still, the complexity and seriousness of the problem of climate change simply underscores how important it is that both major political parties are at least on the same page when it comes to the science. If we can’t agree on the science, in spite of the overwhelming and ever-growing bulk of research pointing to global temperatures rising, how can we hope to craft a policy that will effectively tackle the problem?
The fact is, we can’t. So long as policymakers either deny climate science or simply don’t care enough about the implications of climate change, no good policy will pass in Washington. It’s possible that even with a Republican party not hostile to science that consensus would never be reached, or that any consensus hammered out and labeled bipartisan would be so watered-down and full of loopholes that it would barely scratch the surface to begin with. The political realities of the Senate make comprehensive climate change legislation as unlikely as single-payer healthcare, but especially if an entire major political party denies the problem to begin with.
Then again, there are reasonable compromises to be had.
Cap-and-Trade. Cap-and-Trade was initially an idea designed to appeal to market proponents, and harness the power of markets to control carbon dioxide emissions. Republicans have since labeled the idea ‘cap-and-tax’ and its old proponents on the right have since distanced themselves from the proposal. Still, despite rumors to the contrary, Europe’s cap-and-trade scheme has worked admirably to curb carbon emissions.
Replace the payroll tax with a carbon tax. With the GOP suddenly against cutting payroll taxes, this idea may not have as much traction as it once did. Still, during a stilted economic recovery there may be no better time than now to ditch the payroll tax in favor of a carbon tax. The idea is simple: replace a tax on something we want more of – productivity and jobs – with a tax on something we want less of – carbon emissions. It makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective, but it makes even more sense if you accept climate change as a scientific fact. A repeal of the payroll tax could stimulate the economy and create new jobs, while at the same time the new carbon tax could help curb carbon outputs. This is a buy-one-get-one-free policy that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals alike.
Straight carbon tax and carbon tariffs. One criticism of any carbon reduction plan is that it will hurt America’s global competitiveness. This is a fair critique. After all, global warming is not limited to the United States – the solution should also be global. As failed climate treaties and agreements have shown, this is a lot easier said than done. America could, however, implement a straightforward tax on carbon and couple that with a carbon tax on imports from countries with high carbon emissions. This would place pressure on other economies to implement carbon reduction programs of their own, while limiting the impact of US policies on global competitiveness.
Finance clean energy research. With just about every government program outside of defense facing a potential cut, government investment in green energy and technology may be a pipedream. Still, policy analysts on the right and left have suggested increasing government spending on clean energy research. This approach can either take the shape of direct government grants for research, or as tax credits for people who purchase green technology or energy like electric cars or solar panels. While tax subsidies are a quicker way to incentivize people to go green, direct funding of research can help push forward major breakthroughs. Then again, whenever government funds one project over another it’s taking a risk of picking favorites, and those favorites may not always practice the best science.
End existing fossil fuel and road subsidies. There are many other ways we could tackle climate change, from increased investment in mass transportation to a gas tax to the manufacturing of lighter cars, but one way government can put green energy on a more level playing field with fossil fuels is to end the many ways it subsidizes everything from coal to oil to car manufacturing. Between 2002 and 2008 the US Federal government subsidized the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $72 billion dollars. All that government spending leads directly to increased carbon emissions. After all, if you want more of something you subsidize it, if you want less of something you tax it. At this point, just not subsidizing carbon emissions would be a good start. The Obama administration’s efforts to curb federal subsidies have so far been met with fierce bipartisan opposition.
The politics of climate change is a messy enough business without science denialism in the mix. The 2012 Republican presidential primary is a good testing ground for how climate change would fare under a Republican administration. So far the results are neither hopeful nor surprising. With the exception of the little-known Jon Hunstman, the leading contenders for the Republican nod are all either solidly against global warming science, or too wishy-washy to tell.
Unless our elected officials are willing to accept the vast bulk of scientific evidence and consensus on anthropogenic climate change, we won’t be able to come up with any reasonable policy compromise. Even ending government subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuel producers is bound to run up against too much opposition from the anti-tax crusaders. Many sensible policy proposals exist that could help begin to curb carbon emissions and usher in clean energy, but none of them will work overnight and all of them will take political will to move forward.
So long as the Republican party remains the party of science denialism, from climate change to evolution, efforts to prevent global warming will be stymied at every turn. Enough Democrats remain closely aligned with energy producers to make any climate change bill a tough pass even with team blue in control. That’s great if you happen to be an oil executive with short-term profits as your number one priority. If you happen to be worried about drastic changes in weather patterns, increased intensity of hurricanes, massive droughts, food shortages and famine, and the enormous economic cost of these disasters, you should probably be a little bit more worried.