EconoMatters, Rethinking America

US: Building an Alliance for Climate Change Mitigation

A sensible climate plan will marry CO2 reductions aimed at remediating the climate challenge with infrastructure improvements designed to mitigate its impact.

Credit: JoemanjiArts - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Americans deal with climate change in different ways. Some deny it, some deflect from the cause and some simply say that it is too late to stop it.
  • Americans, no matter their level of education, are too smart to believe that the country will become carbon neutral in a mere 11 years.
  • Feedback loops, like melting glaciers and warming oceans, will in future have a greater impact on global warming than man-made carbon emissions.
  • The tentative state of remediation efforts makes mitigation all the more important. Plans need to be put in place now to diminish impacts of global warming.
  • Red-state Republicans will have to recognize the need for mitigating climate change, even as they continue to drag their feet on remediation.
  • A carbon tax would introduce a virus into the energy and power markets that would create incentives to reduce carbon emissions.

As one “hottest year on record” is replaced by the next, it is becoming increasingly evident that something big is afoot. As a result, slowly but surely, the urgency of dealing with climate change is sinking in across the full spectrum of U.S. politics.

The uncomfortable truth that is also sinking in is that this is a problem the likes of which mankind has never had to deal.

Two uncomfortable truths

The other uncomfortable truth that intimidates and disorients the world beyond the United States is that this is a gargantuan technological and behavioral challenge for which the United States is unprepared, or unwilling, to take a leading role.

It is easy to speak of another “moon landing” scenario. But unlike the 1960s, the optimism and can-do spirit, long U.S. hallmarks, are no longer there. The United States, in fact, has become as inward-looking as much of the world traditionally has been.

It is a question of global importance whether – and, if so, to what degree – the activism and optimism that made America great can be resuscitated.

Science versus U.S. culture

In the United States, people tend to deal with the reality of climate change in different ways. Some Americans deny its existence entirely. Others deflect from the cause, saying that changing climate is a natural occurrence. And then there are those who simply say that it is too late to do anything about it.

There is also an emotional component to the current U.S. debate that goes much deeper than reason. American culture is shaped by a near-universal belief in individual freedom. Americans resent being told that they can’t eat a hamburger, drive an SUV or blast the air conditioning. They don’t want to be told that they have to use a certain type of light bulb.

As important, Americans don’t want to pay more for the things they need in their daily lives. And they surely don’t want taxes to go higher.

Pain, no gain

Over the past several weeks, the entire field of candidates for the 2020 Democratic Party Presidential nomination floated idea after idea on how to deal with the climate crisis. All of the plans involve a lot of pain, with precious little gain.

Furthermore, all these plans run into the wall of popular realism. Americans, no matter their level of education, are too smart to believe that the country will become carbon neutral in a mere 11 years.

People instinctively know what would have to happen over that time to realize that goal. They understand clearly the social and economic dislocations that would occur in such a transition.

And Americans are smart enough to know that even if America manages, against all odds, to become carbon neutral by 2030, reductions in U.S. carbon emissions are likely to be compromised — if not entirely offset — by countries, especially the far more populous China and India, that will fail to hold up their end of the bargain — a bargain that is so easily assumed but so hard to deliver.

Feedback loops

To make matters worse, it may be too late to fully remediate the impending climate crisis. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CO2 stays in the atmosphere between five and two hundred years, with CO2 in the upper atmosphere skewing toward the longer end of the range.

Furthermore, the world right now is causing atmospheric carbon to grow at a net rate of over 2% per annum, with most of the growth coming from developing countries. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, it will take far more than a decade to reduce the growth rate to zero.

But a bigger problem is looming. Feedback loops, such as the melting of the Siberian permafrost, the shrinking of the cryosphere, the melting of glaciers and the warming of the oceans are expected to have a greater impact on global warming in the years ahead than man-made carbon emissions.

In other words, the process of global warming may have already begun to become self-fulfilling. It may have already been taken out of the hands of man and placed squarely in the realm of mother nature herself.

Mitigation is the other part

The tentative state of remediation efforts makes mitigation all the more important. Plans need to be put in place now to diminish the various impacts of global warming.

For example, coastal regions will be subject to increased flooding, including “sunny” day floods. For the United States, the time is now to start building sea walls and drainage systems to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels.

By the same token, above-ground power lines, which produce productivity-sapping outages during storms, must at long last be placed below ground. The United States is perhaps the only developed nation with an entirely above-ground power grid!

Forests must be cleared of the kindling that intensifies fires. Levies must be fortified. Pipelines must be built to transfer safe drinking water into drought-stricken zones.

Beyond that, teams of epidemiologists, bio-scientists and geneticists must be assembled to deal with the voracious appetites of a host of invasive species that are expected to pose threats to human health, agricultural production and fisheries.

Perhaps most importantly, teams of disaster relief specialists, who are able to bring emergency relief into disaster zones just as quickly and with the same precision as modern armies, must be established.

The politics could change

Fusing remediation with mitigation will create a new political dynamic around the climate change debate.

Red-state Republicans live for the most part in areas where the impact of climate change has already taken a toll. In the interest of physical self-preservation, they will have to recognize the need for mitigation, even as they continue to drag their feet on remediation.

On the other side of the political equation, one can count on the fact that the American left will welcome mitigation and the empathetic feel-good impulse that is triggered when society mobilizes on behalf of its victims.

And both sides of the argument would be able to agree on one thing: such an agenda would create plenty of jobs – not pie-in-the-sky clean energy jobs, but well-paying government jobs to dig, hammer and pour concrete.

Money, money, money

Of course, the show-stopper in creating a comprehensive climate agenda is – as it always is — money. Where is the money to pay for all of this?

Some will argue that, given low interest rates, the federal government should just issue massive amounts of new debt. Aside from the fact that public debt levels are already high, the other problem is that merely throwing public money at the problem does not alter individuals’ behavior.

There is only one answer to that and it is inescapable – a carbon tax. A carbon tax would introduce a virus into the energy and power markets that would create incentives to reduce carbon emissions.

It would also produce large volumes of cash for the federal government to fund the mitigation build.

Republicans grow antagonistic at the mere mention of the word tax and Democrats cower in the face of such bluster. But there must come a new reality in the climate debate in the years ahead. The survival of mankind may well depend on it.

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About Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips is a New York-based international analyst with extensive financial sector experience. [United States]

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