The latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change are not as bad as some may have expected. Not that climate change isn't worsening — it is. The window to do something about it is still closing, and the potential impact on human life from harsher weather, coastal flooding and other effects is just as bad as feared. None of that has changed.
But one of the important conclusions of the United Nations panel, which has spent years summarizing the latest research, is that addressing climate change appears to be cheaper than doing nothing. In other words, it won't wreck the global economy to take the much-needed steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This isn't a new idea, but it's one that's increasingly supported by the data. Unfortunately, it's also a message that seems to have been lost on climate change skeptics. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he spoke of the green economy and the potential for new jobs, but the message took a beating when Solyndra, a California-based maker of solar cells, went bankrupt despite more than a half-billion-dollars in taxpayer subsidies.
That incident and the political kerfuffle of a "war on coal" and the chorus of man-made climate change deniers has left a lingering impression that renewable energy is too costly, and dirty energy will keep the U.S. economy humming, particularly against foreign competition. But as the IPCC work group points out, converting from fossil fuels to renewables would shave in the neighborhood of six one-hundredths of 1 percent off economic growth rates. And that's before even factoring in the new jobs from the green economy.
Just as important, it doesn't require waiting around for the perfect solar cell or electric car to be invented or for cold fusion to be mastered. It can be done with existing technology; all that is missing is the will to get the job done.
The threat posed by greenhouse gases is really little different from past environmental hazards whether they were chemicals dumped into rivers or toxic waste dumped into open ditches. Typically, they have been regulated and healthier alternatives found. The challenge posed by carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases is only greater in scope.
Meanwhile, there are enormous dividends to be had from less consumption of fossil fuels — reducing air pollution and dependence on foreign oil. The United States even possesses a significant advantage in clean energy development through our tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship and the availability of natural gas, which can help smooth the transition.
Make no mistake, the challenge is significant. The IPCC panel sticks to a goal of limiting global warming to just 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and considering that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise (growing 2.2 percent annually over the past decade compared to 1.3 percent annually the previous three decades), the mandate is to take decisive action now.
The report does not offer an exact prescription but lists options from greatly increasing our reliance on alternative energy to planting forests and increasing energy efficiency. Such policy choices have been discussed before, and one of the best for the U.S. would be to either impose a carbon tax or a "cap and trade" emissions program.
Under either option, consumers wouldn't necessarily sacrifice much if the resulting revenues were plowed back into subsidizing consumer energy costs. For example, gasoline prices might rise under a carbon tax, but consumers might also get an annual rebate which they could spend on gasoline, mass transit or a more efficient vehicle.
As earlier IPCC reports pulled together by hundreds of leading scientists have shown, the threat posed by climate change is serious, widespread and growing worse. For the U.S., the first step can be as simple as making permanent the federal tax incentives promoting low-emission power and rescinding those that encourage further oil exploration. That won't end traditional oil drilling as we know it, but there's little reason why taxpayers should underwrite practices that are not in their long-term best interest.
It also means forging binding international agreements so that all countries are headed in the right direction, with industrialized nations subsidizing costs for their poorer neighbors where necessary. This is, after all, not a problem unique to any one country but it will require far greater effort by all than has been shown to date.
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