A big chill in global-warming bill
Threats against imports from countries that don't fight climate change will backfire on the US.
A red flag should go up over one effort in Congress to make America go green.
The main global-warming bill on Capitol Hill calls for the president to slap stiff barriers on imports from other countries that don't reduce their carbon emissions in comparable ways.
Such a trade restriction is aimed at helping US industries stay competitive once they are forced to pay higher energy costs under a climate-change law. The US could see many of its industries move to other countries with lesser or no curbs on greenhouse gases, a possibility called "carbon leakage."
Or, less-expensive goods from those countries could flood the American market.
The provision in the House measure on climate change is why President Obama pitches this legislation as a "jobs bill."
But it isn't one, really.
This restriction could trigger a wave of global trade protectionism that would ultimately hurt the US economy – the largest exporter in the world, and one in which 40 percent of jobs are dependent on trade.
Countries such as China and India could walk away from these critical talks if they see the US and other industrialized nations threaten to protect domestic markets. Germany and France have warned they will "protect European industry" if other countries do not accept similar climate goals. But poorer countries that are already reluctant to act on climate change will, when faced with getting poorer with less trade, make little or no effort to save Earth's environment.
The House provision on potential trade barriers was added not with an intent to threaten countries like China to concede to emission cuts. Rather, American industries that are dependent on fossil fuels, along with their labor unions, asked for it.
Achieving a truly global effort against global warming won't be easy. It raises all sorts of questions about fairness. The political horse-trading in Congress to carve out exceptions to climate-change legislation shows the difficulty.
But putting global free trade at risk would also risk efforts to have all nations move toward cleaner energy. And if the US were to slap high tariffs on imports in the name of protecting industries, it would only add hidden costs to American consumers.
Free trade, especially in goods for clean technologies, helps to lift the economies of all nations and allows them to invest in energy conservation and other ways to fight global warming.
As Congress moves closer to a final bill, it needs to keep open America's doors to free trade.