Friday, April 17, 2009

A turning point?

For those of us that accept the scientific consensus around global warming, the inaction on the part of the United States to regulate greenhouse gases has been infuriating and disheartening. The more the science around climate change evolves, the less fun this issue gets. There are politically controversial issues that you can enjoy debating, and form a sense of identity around whatever position you come to occupy. Global warming used to be one of those issues for me, but at some point it stopped being fun. It's too serious and keeps getting more serious all the time.

So the New York Times headline today: "E.P.A. Clears the Way for Regulation of Warming Gases," comes as a huge relief. Here's the good news:
As the E.P.A. begins the process of regulating these climate-altering substances under the Clean Air Act, Congress is engaged in writing wide-ranging energy and climate change legislation that could pre-empt any action taken by the agency. President Obama and Ms. Jackson have repeatedly said that they much prefer that Congress address global warming rather than have the E.P.A tackle it through administrative action.
Here's the scandal:
Two years ago this month, the Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. E.P.A., ordered the agency to determine whether greenhouse gases harm the environment and public health and, if not, to explain why. Agency scientists were virtually unanimous in determining that they do, but top officials of the George W. Bush administration suppressed the finding and took no action.
In my view, this paragraph damns the Bush administration, maybe even more than Iraq. It willfully decided against performing the one duty a government has that really counts: protecting citizens from circumstances that are too big for individuals to face alone. They had the science but chose to ignore it, and the delay may turn out to be catastrophic.

This won't turn things around immediately, and to the extent that it does, it might turn out to have come too late. But without the US government on board, it was hard to see how there could even be a chance of finding a solution. When Dick Cheney said: "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," he may have been cynical, but he wasn't entirely wrong.

A New Yorker article a couple weeks ago gave an explanation for why. When an individual decides to conserve by, say, riding a bike instead of driving a car, that person is actually decreasing the overall demand for gas (by a tiny amount), which lowers the price and gives others an incentive to drive more, raising the price and overall emissions back to where it was in the first place. If your goal is to go to your grave without a guilty conscience, than this works well. If your goal is to actually have an impact on climate change, it does nothing.

It's a collective action problem and governments have to take the lead by writing new rules of the game. The US has long been the largest emitter of green house gases, but more than that, it has a leadership position in the world that no other country has. Canada, for example, has basically been waiting to see what the US does before coming up with a plan of its own. And no other country has the same level of resources to put into research and development to create the technology that will really lead to a solution.

For the first time in a long time, this is good news.

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