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News Opinion Editorial

Obama's global warming plan: Not enough but better than nothing

With this week's heat wave, air quality warnings and severe weather forecasts as a backdrop, President Barack Obama could scarcely have picked a more auspicious moment to reveal his multi-pronged plan to address climate change. His surprise decision to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada if the project is judged to cause a net increase in greenhouse gases underscores the seriousness of the issue — while the swift criticism of that choice (and Mr. Obama's plan, generally) demonstrates the Congressional denial and partisanship that is endangering the nation's health and safety.

That this country and world are threatened by man-made climate change is well-established. The 12 hottest years ever recorded in the U.S. have taken place in the last 15 with last year the warmest ever recorded in the lower 48 states. Warming oceans, the rise of sea levels, the rapid retreat of ice sheets in the Arctic and elsewhere provide ample evidence that the pace of the current trend is unusually swift and alarming.

Yet the failure of the legislative branch to seriously address this crisis should be seen as the most disturbing trend of all. In recent years, plenty of bills have been introduced on the subject, but few, if any, with the words "climate change" get serious debate on Capitol Hill, let alone pass the House or Senate. Nor has President Obama made this a particularly high priority, content to push conservation efforts like promoting green energy or raising fuel efficiency standards or adopting EPA regulations that help but fall far short of what is needed.

In that light, the plan he revealed this week is more of the same — an effort to bypass Congress and make substantial progress on climate change through executive powers. It falls far short of the truly significant reforms that are needed, but it at least moves America in the right direction, away from burning fossil fuels and toward renewable energy and greater fuel efficiency.

Other than his position on Keystone pipeline, the most controversial aspect of Mr. Obama's plan involves reducing the carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. That policy is virtually unavoidable as such facilities generate about one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But it's also unlikely to prove popular with conservatives who see such regulations as a burden to the private sector and generally prefer to delay, dilute or deny climate change policy.

A far better approach would involve some form of carbon tax or cap-and-trade policy that gave greater flexibility to energy providers. It would let the marketplace determine the solution. And fossil fuel-based forms of energy would be forced to pay for the harm they cause. In return, the federal government might reduce other taxes so that average consumers would suffer little-to-no net loss while the invisible hand of the free market works its magic.

But that kind of proposal would require action by Congress and, unfortunately, it's far easier for opponents to attack climate change policy as a "jobs killer," a term filled with irony given that global warming is the real killer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has forecast thousands more deaths annually from heat waves, worsened asthma and allergies, a rise in mosquito bites associated with warmer weather, reduced farm production and harm to the water supply.

High unemployment can't be constantly used as an excuse to do nothing, particularly when the effects of climate change can be just as ruinous for the economy. Last year alone, various weather-related disasters caused losses of more than $110 billion in the U.S. If anything, the country must be spending more to prepare for the severe weather ahead, a point Mr. Obama was careful to make in his speech at Georgetown University.

Admittedly, it will also require greater cooperation from other countries like China and India that produce a growing percentage of greenhouse gases, much of it from burning coal. But at least many of these countries appear interested in reforms. A recent Pew Research Center survey notes that residents of other countries rank climate change as the greatest global threat they face (ahead of such dangers as financial instability, Islamic militants or Iran's nuclear program).

The U.S. is certainly capable of taking greater action. We've already become the world's leading producer of natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel. As a result, carbon emissions from the U.S. energy sector are the lowest in two decades. That's a big boost. Mr. Obama's proposals will likely prove helpful, too. But it's also time Congress took action and recognized what seven out of 10 Americans already agree upon — that climate change is real. We must take stronger steps to address the problem before it's too late.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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