The latest uptick in U.S. carbon emissions is not unlike the post-holiday weight gain: It demonstrates the challenge of correcting longstanding bad behaviors. In this case, it’s the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and a product of a growing economy, which means more travel, more consumption, more manufacturing and so on.
A report published Tuesday by Rhodium Group estimates that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States rose by 3.4 percent over the past year. What makes that number particularly troubling is that the greenhouse gas emissions have been largely in decline for the past decade, triggered not only by the Great Recession but by serious anti-pollution reforms taken by the Obama administration to curb major sources like coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhausts. The increase means that those strategies — already being weakened if not outright suspended by President Donald Trump — are inadequate if the U.S. is to meet the targets it pledged to meet under the Paris climate agreement.
It would be tempting at this point to rail against Mr. Trump’s irresponsible and science-denying position on climate change — or perhaps position(s), as his rationale keeps evolving — but that’s not enough. The booming economy has just demonstrated that Obama era regulations were also inadequate to what is admittedly a sizable challenge. It wasn’t coal plants generating all those greenhouse gases in 2018; a record number of them closed last year. It was factories and planes, trucks and home heating oil burned during a particularly chilly winter. It was oil refineries and cement plants and many other industries. In other words, merely promoting solar and wind power (or switching from coal to natural gas) isn’t enough.
Naysayers may point to these findings and claim higher greenhouse gas emissions are unavoidable, but that’s simply not true. Even with the 2018 increase, overall carbon dioxide emissions are down about 11 percent since 2011, according to the Rhodium report. Just because Paris targets now seem unlikely, at least not on the current timetable, that’s not a reason to abandon the effort. This isn’t an intellectual exercise; the curbs on emissions offer the best hope of at least forestalling some of the worst impacts of climate change, including flooding and droughts, worsening weather, sea-level rise, disease, food shortages and social disruption and political unrest.
It was just a few months ago that a United Nations panel meeting in South Korea pointed out that Paris targets were inadequate anyway. The better goal, essentially a carbon-neutral world by 2050, would likely require not just tougher emissions standards but extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That would require the U.S. not only to recommit to Paris standards but to double-down. Again, not because climate change is trendy among liberals but for simple self-preservation.
The country needs to get past the debate over whether climate change exists. The evidence of human activity adversely affecting the atmosphere and creating a “greenhouse” warming of the planet is overwhelming. The only meaningful disagreements are over what strategies should be employed to spare the U.S. and the rest of the world from the most destructive effects of climate change. President Trump is the most obvious impediment to a return to a rational climate policy, but he is not the only obstacle. This is a global problem, after all.
The longer we wait to commit to that rational strategy, the greater the sacrifice Americans will be forced to make — either by reducing their carbon footprint in the near future or attempting to ameliorate the worst effects of climate change as the century progresses. Building solar farms today would seem more prudent than building seawalls to spare your children tomorrow. But it has to start with recognizing the imbecility of “clean coal” or Chinese hoaxes or finger-pointing at other countries or whatever “alternative facts” the deniers want to foist on the public.
Red flags abound. Last year’s California wild fires weren’t just about leaf raking, they were the result of a higher temperatures, stronger winds and a drought, all of which can be traced to climate change. Yet there were representatives of the Trump administration in Poland not long ago standing with other oil-producing countries in opposition to U.N. climate findings. What a shameful charade made all the more painful as parts of this country burn and this White House fiddles.
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