California's inconvenient truth

If you buy a large appliance these days, a sticker reveals the estimated costs to run it. California lawmakers should have been as forthright last week. They ordered a 25 percent cut in carbon emissions for the state by 2020. But they weren't upfront on the cost to consumers.

An honest accounting of the price to be paid in the battle against global warming is necessary if that battle is to be won. Politicians cannot just set lofty goals that force industries and consumers to spend billions on clean or efficient energy technologies without providing down-to-earth estimates on the ultimate financial burden to working families.

Will electricity bills now rise 20 percent in California, as some economists predict? Will whole industries, such as cementmakers and refineries, move out? What if other states and the federal government don't follow suit? Will California's effort to save the planet from predicted rising seas and drastic weather then prove to be a mere drop in a rain cloud?

Answers to such questions remain vague. California lawmakers left it to a regulatory body to take the political heat by coming up with the hard details – years hence – of how much to squeeze industries and consumers for the costs of becoming better stewards of the atmosphere.

A more courageous step would have been to impose a high tax on all carbon fuels, much like the current tax on gasoline (a hydrocarbon) but one with enough bite to actually change behavior. That's a faster and a more politically accountable way to create incentives for greater efficiency and to move toward carbon-free energy sources.

But politicians are afraid voters – acting more as selfish consumers than enlightened environmentalists – would punish them at the polls.

Hiding the real costs can have consequences. Europe, Japan, and Canada, which signed onto the Kyoto treaty, are now having difficulty meeting the pact's emission targets as they see the costs of enforcement. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned last year: "The truth is no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem." But they might if such cuts are made plain to everyone beforehand.

One study by the California Air Resources Board (the regulatory body) estimates the state's economy will benefit from curbing greenhouse-gas emissions and developing alternative energy sources. But that study is in dispute, and lawmakers themselves provided an escape hatch for tough emission rules in case of a "threat of significant economic harm."

California may yet provide a spark for the self-sacrifice needed by the entire US to begin saving the planet from a critical rise in temperature.

To really slow down global warming, the US needs to triple its official spending on research in climate technologies. Using coercive ways to speed up private investment is justified if the burden is widely shared nationally and globally and if consumers and taxpayers first see the estimated price.

California is not the show-me state. It's a state of high aspirations, and the world's 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its politicians are right to dream of nudging the US to act more forcefully. But they should make sure all eyes are open about the costs.

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