Obama and Congress must fight climate change like they do terrorism

President Obama is expected to announce steps to limit greenhouse gases today. That's fine, but they are half measures without the help of Congress. Both must take this issue as seriously as they do terrorism. Climate change, too, has killed people and the financial damage is real.

Gene Blythe/AP/file
President Obama is expected to order the Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, such as Plant Scherer, pictured here, in Juliette, Ga. Op-ed contributor Andrew Guzman writes: 'The most efficient and far-reaching solution lies with Congress,' which should pass a carbon tax.

For a man with his hands tied, President Obama is offering a decent enough plan to fight climate change. In a speech today, he’s expected to announce federal regulation of greenhouse gases at existing coal-fired power plants, increased energy standards for buildings and appliances, and greater development of renewable energy on federal lands. These are moves that he can try without approval from Congress. And while they are halfway measures, they are better than no measures.

But imagine if his hands were not tied. Imagine if they were joined with lawmakers willing to tackle this issue with the urgency and breadth that the government devotes to fighting terrorism.

Americans don’t think about the threat of climate change in the same way as terrorism, but perhaps they should. Climate change has killed individuals through vicious storms, if not by bombs and planes, and the financial damage is just as real.

The main difference seems to be that terrorism is perpetrated directly by human beings whom American intelligence and security forces can pursue, while climate change provides less convenient villains. Coal-fired power plants don’t dominate headlines the way terrorist bombers do.

Even if this is an accurate explanation, however, it cannot possibly be a good reason to respond to one threat full-bore and not the other. The United States should care about harm caused and how to prevent it, not whether it was caused by a human attack or by a warming planet.

It would have been a mistake to view 9/11 as a unique incident that could never happen again and it would similarly be a mistake to think of last year as an outlier in terms of climate events in America. Yet 2012 was more like the new normal.

It was the hottest year on record in the US, beating the previous record holder, 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. This completes a grim trifecta for the year, which also featured Hurricane Sandy devastating the East Coast, and the most severe drought in at least 25 years.

Temperatures are rising everywhere and the climate is turning hostile. Worldwide, for example, the 13 hottest years since 1880 are 1998 and every single one of the most recent 12 years. In the atmosphere, the concentrations of gas that most contribute to global warming – carbon dioxide – have reached 400 parts per million, their highest level since the Earth was much warmer, 3 million to 5 million years ago.

Approaching climate change as seriously as terrorism would change our entire thinking. We cannot imagine ignoring a terrorist threat because our information about it is imperfect, yet that is a standard feature of climate change debates.

We cannot imagine America refusing to confront global terrorism because, in its view, China and India are not doing enough, but this is a familiar argument with respect to climate change.

And we cannot imagine someone rejecting outright any counter-terrorism policy that includes economic costs, but this, too, is a staple in the climate change arena.

Pinpointing the total costs of climate change is a tricky business, but 2012 demonstrates that when Mother Nature gets angry, everyone pays. And they pay a lot. Hurricane Sandy and last year’s record drought will each cost at least several tens of billions of dollars. To this could be added at least nine other climate-related disasters in the US that cost more than $1 billion each, reports NOAA, as well as countless other smaller events that together impose a massive financial burden.

To put a more tangible value on the issue, a study in Washington state estimates that climate change will cost households there $1,250 by 2020 and $2,750 by 2080. And let’s not forget that the largest costs are human. Hurricane Katrina killed at least 1,833 people in 2005. Though it's true that no single weather event can be attributed to an increase in greenhouse gases, scientists know that a warming world will cause more such events and make them more damaging.

Because of a lack of interest – and agreement – in Congress, President Obama is being forced to come up with solutions that can be carried out by the executive branch. But the most efficient and far-reaching solution lies with Congress. In Mr. Obama’s first term, Congress was unable to pass a “cap-and-trade” bill to curb carbon emissions. A far more straightforward fix is to raise the price of carbon through a national carbon tax.

The word “tax” is taboo in this Congress, at least in the House. But a carbon tax should be welcomed because it gets directly at the problem, carbon. It will change behavior – from consumers to businesses – without restrictive or cumbersome regulation. It will reduce the use of fossil fuels, encourage the development of renewables, and generate revenue that can be used to reduce the deficit, fund other programs, or be reimbursed to the public.

Every year of inaction on climate change makes the situation worse and makes the problem harder to solve. To be sure, difficult questions remain – exactly how large should the tax be? Should the US also impose a carbon tax on imported goods? But these questions should not hold America back any more than debates about passenger scanning equipment or security protocols at airports got in the way of needed screening to protect flyers from potential terrorist attacks.

Climate change is a present and growing threat. It is past time for America to treat it as such. Ignoring the threat of terrorism would have been unimaginably irresponsible. Turning a blind eye to climate change would be no less so.

Andrew Guzman is professor of law and associate dean at Berkeley Law School at the University of California. He is the author of "Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change."

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