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The politics of confronting climate change

Scientific evidence on man-made global warming is so loud and clear that leaders of 195 countries adopted the first climate agreement at a summit in Paris at end 2015 to reduce carbon emissions. But to appreciate the divide between the scientific consensus and climate action, one only needs to see the neglect of the issue in the U.S. presidential elections.

This gulf between science and policy rests on politics that see climate mitigation as a drag on economic growth. For example, Maryland officials are resisting making carbon cuts from power plants for fear they will raise power bills and hurt the state's economy.

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Climate abatement versus economic growth is a dangerous conundrum. Policymakers argue that climate measures hamper growth. But climate change costs lives and money in damages locally and globally. The deadly floods in Louisiana and the severe fire season in southern California are just two recent reminders of the spike in climate related floods, storms and heat waves. It is inaction, not action, on climate change that impedes growth.

Sooner or later, the world will have to switch to a low carbon path out of necessity. But if it has to take Armageddon to turn around climate perceptions, the resulting hard landing will be too costly to bear. Considering that we spend millions of dollars on research and policy worrying about (milder) financial crises, the crucial question is: What will it take to generate a soft, rather than a hard, landing with climate change?

First, for local entities to take strong measures to lower their carbon footprint, there needs to be some assurance that others will do so too so that their immediate competitiveness is not eroded. In the U.S., for example, states need to move together. A proposal to increase carbon emission cuts in Maryland and eight other East Coast states that make up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has a prayer because it is part of a regional agreement to reduce power plant pollution, giving some assurance that the state's competitiveness would be maintained. Even then it is proving to be a hard sell.

At the national level, the major emitters — including the U.S., China, India, Russia and Japan — would need to move in tandem, both to ensure that each stays the course and to have an adequate combined effect. You need strong political leadership to signal that as a group they would phase out burning of fossil fuels and switch to renewables.

Second, we need much faster dissemination of new technologies that promise to lower the cost of producing renewables. The alternative energy industry has made strides in bringing down the upfront cost of renewable energy, but fossil fuels like coal are still cheaper. We need taxes on fossil fuels like coal, much like taxes on cigarettes, to offset their ill-effects, and subsidies for the efficient development of renewables to encourage their salutary impact.

To underpin the use of new technologies, this is also the time to put into effect financing models that would facilitate a switch to a low carbon growth path. Public funds need to be mobilized with great urgency as the Paris meetings sought, and the private sector needs to leverage that in making climate financing viable.

Third, public opinion must sway climate action. The enormous scientific and recent economic work that has been done should be used to inform the election debates. People need to realize that climate policy needs a big boost to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. At the Paris meetings, countries committed to Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), but public opinion needs to support concrete measures.

New research published in Nature finds that while these contributions will lower greenhouse gas emissions, the median scenario will still result in a warming of 2.6 to 3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. So public opinion must press countries and localities to overshoot the current intended contributors.

This three-pronged attack on climate change is a tall order. But dealing with the local fallout from runaway global warming will be far taller.

Vinod Thomas (vndthomas49@gmail.com) was formerly the director general of independent evaluation at the World Bank and at the Asian Development Bank; he lives in Bethesda.

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