Asbury Park Editorial: April 20, 2013
Stop ignoring climate change
Earth Day 2013 arrives on Monday in a world that continues to face massive, long-term environmental challenges, all across the globe. Many of those challenges are directly attributable to climate change — the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, increases in weather extremes and violent storms.
Government policy debates on energy and development are increasingly shaped by a growing understanding of climate change and its myriad effects. Scientists overwhelmingly acknowledge the existence of climate change and the reality that human activity is contributing to it.
Yet somehow, amid all of this, we still can’t get the politicians to agree even that climate change is real, never mind what to do about it. Sad, but true.
Politicians from different sides of the aisle never agree on much of anything, of course, especially these days. But there’s something particularly galling about lawmakers who know next to nothing about science cherry-picking isolated studies in an attempt to dismiss climate change as hysterical hokum, or simply tossing out broad denials, as if most of the world just doesn’t know better.
It should surprise no one that such arrogance is mostly spouted by Republicans. But they’re not that dumb. This really isn’t about the science. What many Republicans fear is that any meaningful effort to combat climate change will necessitate big-government solutions, such as aggressive green energy initiatives and efficiency mandates. Republicans are trying to head that prospect off at the pass, attacking the scientific underpinnings of climate change. They won’t have to fight solutions, after all, if they can diminish acceptance of the problem itself.
The stakes are enormous, and we’re seeing just one example playing out in our region right now as reconstruction plans unfold in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has placed great emphasis on considering the effects of climate change throughout the entire process, which could mean, among other things, getting more homes and businesses off the coastline and out of direct harm’s way. In New Jersey, however, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is more a champion of staying in place and rebuilding, with some concessions to nature evidenced by protective dunes and homes on higher stilts.
In other words, Cuomo thinks climate change is enough of a threat to act aggressively now in preparation for its continued impact. Christie? Not so much.
Overcoming the GOP’s big-government fears is among the reasons that some activists are supporting the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Such a plan was recently promoted in the Wall Street Journal by George Shultz, former secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, both of whom have been studying energy policy at Stanford University.
A pilot version of the tax has been under experimentation in Canada, in the province of British Columbia. The goal is to tax all carbon emissions, with the assurance that all of the revenue will be returned to the public. Businesses and individuals would, as a result, be encouraged to seek out more energy efficiency in their production and purchases, allowing for a free-market solution in which the government wouldn’t, in effect, be trying to pick preferred alternate energy sources. The tax would force the free-marketeers to work it all out.
While the concept has promise, we can already see some problems in trying to gain Republican backing. For example, a carbon tax would hit traditional fossil-fuel companies the hardest, something Big Oil — and by extension the GOP — wouldn’t like. There will be understandable public skepticism that any new tax could maintain genuine revenue neutrality. And there’s also the question of how the carbon taxes would be redistributed to the public.
In British Columbia, for instance, the tax proceeds are redirected primarily toward lower-income residents in a variety of ways. Try doing that here, and Republicans would be up in arms that wealthier people weren’t getting their fair share.
But whether or not a revenue-neutral carbon tax is part of the solution or not, it’s worth remembering on this Earth Day and those to come that political resistance to the need for action on climate change isn’t a scientific endeavor. The Republicans aren’t idiots. It’s not that they don’t believe in climate change — most of them, at least. They just don’t want to be forced to do anything about it.
The planet, however, can’t afford that kind of self-preservation instinct.