Maryland's climate opportunity

The dog days of summer are upon us, and most Marylanders are more inclined to reach for beach-friendly paperbacks than a 265-page treatise on climate change. That's a shame, because the latest effort to address greenhouse gas emissions in Maryland — an ambitious plan released last week by Gov. Martin O'Malley — ought to be required reading, particularly by those who dismiss such efforts as too costly or unnecessary.

Here's the CliffsNotes version: Climate change is real, it's accelerating, it's potentially disastrous, and Maryland, with its hundreds of miles of coastline, wetlands and coastal development, is more vulnerable than most. The question is not so much whether the state should take aggressive action but how best to meet some reasonable goals.

In releasing this latest plan — a road map to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 — Governor O'Malley described the work as "hard … life-and-death hard." He's absolutely correct. None of it will be easy, certain sectors of the economy will feel the pinch more than others, and it would be far less aggravating for Maryland to let others make the needed sacrifices first.

But to choose inaction because neighboring states aren't doing as much to reduce emissions (or even because neighboring countries aren't) would be the equivalent of not bailing out a sinking life raft because the other occupants are too slow to do the same. You don't wait, and you don't crow about moral victories or leadership (sorry, environmental community); you do it because you don't want to drown — or for the next generation destined for the raft to drown either.

But here's the other point made clearly by the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan: This is not a matter of picking your poison or choosing whom to sacrifice, it's actually a potential win-win for Maryland. While it's true that some businesses will face higher costs, the net effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be more jobs and a boost to Maryland's economy.

As a 2011 report by the Regional Economic Studies Institute of Towson University pointed out, the new standards should result in a net increase of $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion in public and private investment and tens of thousands of jobs. And that's not even counting the economic benefit of improved human health or a cleaner environment from lower pollution.

Naysayers may remain skeptical, but Maryland has already taken substantial action to reduce the state's climate change footprint. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has used an emissions cap-and-trade system to invest millions in energy efficiency, clean energy technology and other consumer benefits, and the Clean Cars Program has reduced tailpipe emissions (and raised fuel efficiency standards) — both examples of progress that has already been made without harm to the economy.

Perhaps that's not a lot of comfort to people who want cheap, coal-fired electricity and don't care about the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and toxic metals — in addition to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — those power plants are pumping into the air. But those jobs are illusory because they are not sustainable. The sooner Marylanders understand that and accept more forward-looking policies, the sooner the state's economy will be positioned for long-term growth and the green jobs that will be a part of it.

Can Maryland by itself reverse the global levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (recently measured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at 400 parts per million, the highest level in 3 million years)? Of course not. But to postpone the needed actions would be like ignoring public pension debt until, like Detroit, it's time to file for bankruptcy. Delay only makes the consequences worse, with this additional caveat: One can survive bankruptcy, but there isn't a spare planet available. The sooner action is taken, the easier the transition will be and the sooner the state will enjoy the benefits of those policies. All that's lacking is the political will.

Mr. O'Malley, a possible candidate for president in 2016, obviously intends for his climate change efforts to get noticed beyond Maryland's borders, but that doesn't make them any less correct. Cut past the rah-rah about leading the nation, and the problem remains really simple. Maryland's per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are four times of that of China and twice what Europeans contribute. We need to clean up our act — not only for simple self-preservation but because it presents an economic opportunity as well.

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