President Barack Obama got some chuckles this week when he told a crowd at a Home Depot store that "insulation is sexy stuff." But if by that he meant that common energy-efficiency measures are a far more effective (and perhaps even more exciting) way to combat climate change and high energy costs than most people realize, the president got it exactly right.

A recent study released by the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Environmental Research demonstrates just how effective such efforts can be. The report estimates that if Maryland homeowners invested just $3,000 in such mundane improvements as pipe and wall insulation, more efficient furnaces and replacement windows, they'd see a $400-$500 annual reduction in energy costs.

Not only would that initial investment be recouped in just six or so years, the benefits for everyone would be substantial. Chief among them: A reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of more than 1 million tons per year - not to mention the better health gained from having less noxious pollution in the air.

Yet for all the economic gloom-and-doom pushed by the fear-mongers over what cap-and-trade and other actions to address global warming might entail, one might assume the American consumer was being asked to live the life of Thoreau at Walden Pond. In a recent op-ed column, former GOP vice-presidential standard-bearer Sarah Palin shrilly warned that it could inflict "permanent damage" to the nation's economy.

That's simply not true - and the best evidence available to demonstrate that can be found right here in Maryland. As one of 10 states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Maryland already participates in a cap-and-trade system not unlike the one being debated in Congress. Power producers must buy, at auction, permits to cover the gas their facilities emit.

The impact on residential electricity bills has been minuscule, but the collective proceeds - $96 million since the program started two years ago - are helping fundamentally change the state by promoting conservation and efficiency. Businesses and homes are installing "clean" energy systems with assistance from the fund, and that is producing, not destroying, jobs. Some of the money is also used to mitigate the expense to consumers.

Admittedly, progress has been slowed by the economy and Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to use half this year's greenhouse initiative revenue to help poor families pay their heating bills. While such assistance is necessary, using conservation funds for this purpose was not. The lack of an alternative source of revenue in the midst of the worst economic crash since the Great Depression prompted the state legislature to approve the diversion last spring.

Still, the cost of the greenhouse initiative program - perhaps $1.25 more a month so far for Baltimore Gas & Electric customers - is so modest that one has to wonder whether consumers have an adequate incentive to conserve. It's clearly not the job-destroyer that the Chicken Littles and other doom-sayers on Capital Hill so often denounce.

Will consumers be required to pay more in the future? Most likely, if Maryland is to meet its ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gases. But relatively inexpensive measures available to consumers - Mr. Obama's "sexy" insulation included - would do much to off-set the cost.

Even if some small sacrifices are needed - beginning with requiring wealthy countries to help pay for the preservation of vital carbon-absorbing forests in developing nations, as international negotiators in Copenhagen have sought this week - they are a distinct bargain compared to the monumental costs of doing nothing about man-made climate change.

Readers respond

Climate change may not happen for 1,000 years. If you are in a poor country and are asked to choose between food, your economy, lifesaving drugs, schooling or climate change, what will you choose? The fact is, poverty is an urgent need and affects half of the world.

Tripling gas prices and hugely increasing electricity rates under cap-and-trade will force millions more people into poverty, and poverty is directly linked to more deaths. Stephen Staedtler

Global warming is like hypertension, a silent killer. The symptoms are subtle. If we let it creep up on us, the seas will rise, coastal areas will be destroyed, millions will be displaced, agricultural lands will be under water, drought and disease will be pervasive, and it may be too late to reverse what we started. How is that good for the poor? Caravan

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