No procrastinating
on climate

Joseph Lieberman
calls for leadership to accept the challenge of global warming and use market forces to reduce emissions

Global warming is one of the great challenges of our time. Greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels threaten our environment, of course, but they also threaten our economy and our public health. They also represent a challenge to political leadership. Public officials must be prepared to look at the science, face the facts and do something about a problem that is appearing, but whose most difficult, and potentially devastating, consequences are still over the horizon.

We must come to grips with the facts about the need for a new energy policy. Global warming will force us to change the way we produce and consume energy. It is time to accelerate the world’s transition to cleaner, more efficient energy sources. As the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, we in the United States must show that we are accepting our responsibility to be part of the global solution to this global problem.

Confronting climate change will also help to address growing concerns about our national energy security. As developing economies like China and India rapidly grow, so does their demand for cheap oil, creating greater pressures on an already tight market for a finite resource that lies predominantly beneath nations troubled by terrorism and who are not our strongest allies.

Creating a market
For its part, the United States can sharply reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and deploy cleaner energy production through policies based on free-market principles. That is why my colleague in the US Senate, John McCain, and I introduced the Climate Stewardship Act, and will do so again in the new Congress. This legislation would require a reduction in carbon dioxide emission levels to 2000 levels by 2010, by capping the overall greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity generation, transportation, industrial and commercial sectors, creating a market for individual companies to trade pollution credits.

From a purely economic analysis, one big reason the United States does not turn away from the unsustainable and environmentally damaging use of energy is that the full impacts of our usage are not included in the price. By putting a market price on damaging greenhouse gas emissions, our bill would provide such a pricing mechanism. This would drive private-sector investment toward non-fossil fuel, non-emitting technologies by simply restructuring the market to recognize their value.

Our proposal has its roots in the acid rain trading programme established in 1990. I worked on developing the ‘cap and trade’ programme to control the sulphur dioxide emissions from power plants that were destroying forests, waterways and wildlife with acid rain. At the time, the energy industry complained it would cost them more than $1,000 a tonne to comply with the ‘cap and trade’ plan.

But – using the same flexible, market-based system that we propose to use to address global warming – those emission credits sell today for just $128 to $260 a tonne. Critics were way off then. And they are way off now with their predictions of sky-high costs if our bill becomes law.

In fact, a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that our bill would cost approximately $20 per household per year. That is just over 5 cents a day for a family of four. Another study by the Tellus Institute predicted that our legislation would save Americans $48 billion by the year 2020 because of reduced energy demand.

If we continue to procrastinate on climate change, the price tag will grow. Preventive actions that reduce climate change will most certainly cost less than adapting our civilization to the dramatic changes expected. Moving coastal cities, rebuilding infrastructure, and relocating homes and families will be disruptive and expensive. In fact, because of uncertainty about the growing risk of severe weather events and other potential effects of global warming, insurers are charging higher premiums to businesses and homeowners to cover expected higher costs. Such continued uncertainty hinders economic activity across the board, and prevents corporations and investors from making sound decisions.

Business opportunities
Contrast this with the potential economic benefits from tackling global warming. The world’s need to shift to lower-emitting energy technologies will create vast new horizons of business opportunities. The potential economic rewards of confronting climate change outweigh the risks – and realizing these rewards could be the source of a country’s global competitive advantage. Over the next 20 years, $10-20 trillion will be spent globally on new energy technologies.

Environmental protection and economic growth are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually reinforcing over the long run. Measured steps to curb global warming in a business-friendly way promise not only to save us from environmental degradation but to open new opportunities and to spur innovative new technologies for American business to seize.
If we act now, global warming is not a conqueror to be feared – but a challenge to be met
Passing the Climate Stewardship Act is step one for the United States. Step two involves making it work. And that will require leadership at all levels across the nation. Often when we talk about creating these kinds of national efforts, we use wartime analogies. I want to use a peacetime model – the race to the moon.

The lunar programme is an apt model for the broad mobilization we need today to address global warming – and to show this will help, not hurt, the economy. A healthy environment and a thriving economy are goals in concert, not conflict. We took existing technologies and made them better, more powerful and less expensive to achieve a historic breakthrough – putting a man on the moon.

Fuelling innovation
Many of these improvements, innovations and inventions then worked their way into the economy – spurring growth, creating jobs, and fuelling global scientific and technological innovation.

That is precisely where we stand now in the challenge to face global warming.

We know how to make fuel cells and solar panels. We know how to make coal-burning energy plants less polluting. We know how to make cars and trucks that are safe and comfortable – and less polluting and less fuel thirsty.

What is required of us now is to create an atmosphere that will drive and nurture the development of these technologies. In the United States, the Climate Stewardship Act does just that by creating a market that makes greenhouse gas reduction valuable. And just like the lunar programme, bringing these innovations to market will spur the economy and create jobs.

Consider the costs and consequences of inaction, for they will ruin the economy with a far more destructive certainty than any greenhouse-gas control programme ever could. Imagine the costs of fighting the rising seas overtaking our cities and towns in low-lying coastal areas. Imagine the cost when crops on now productive farmland – in this country and around the world – shrivel and die from withering heat and droughts. Imagine the famine.

Imagine the medical costs to treat insect-borne diseases that are now rare. And imagine the cost of the severe regulatory programme we will be forced to enact if the environmental impacts of global warming arrive here uncontested.

Our nation and, indeed, our planet cannot wait for us to stumble toward an answer. The consequences and costs of inaction are too great. We know there is a long and menacing shadow marching toward our shores – toward our cities and towns. But we know that if we act now, global warming is not a conqueror to be feared – but a challenge to be met.

In Scripture, it is written that the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, which is surely the truth – and reminds us we are only visitors. We must remember that we do not own the Earth. We are blessed to live on it for some period of time. With that time comes a responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth.

We must rise to this challenge. For us to do less now – when so clearly confronted – is to dishonour our past, disgrace our present and devalue our future. Global warming is a problem we needed to start dealing with yesterday. We must get started today. We cannot wait until the day after tomorrow

Joseph Lieberman is a United States Senator from Connecticut. He was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 2000.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid

Complementary issues:
Issue on Climate and Action 1998
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Richard G. Lugar: Plant Power (Energy) 2003