Here's some news that might give many Americans sticker shock: The cost of cutting greenhouse gases by 15 percent would cost the average US household about $1,600, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Such unbiased estimates are emerging only late in a hot debate over global warming on Capitol Hill. Too bad. The numbers are pitting Democrats against one another when credible cost projections from neutral sources should have been clear long ago.
After years of hearing about the impact of doing nothing if atmospheric warming continues, the ruling party is only now struggling over forcing consumers and industries to pay for curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions.
With many Americans now in financial straits, the main climate-change bill in Congress is also in trouble. Polls show that a majority in the US are against setting caps on such climate pollutants. Concerns about global warming, once high, have dropped dramatically. Only 34 percent say they believe it is primarily caused by human activity.
A consensus draft bill may appear in coming days from a House committee, but it will probably be watered down. The original target of cutting carbon gases 20 percent by 2020 (from 2005 levels) could drop to 14 percent.
And instead of collecting some $624 billion in revenue from the selling of pollution permits to industry, most of those permits would be given away free of charge, in what is called a cap-and-trade system. There would be little money to fund clean energy or subsidize the poor for higher costs.
The US would look like a weak leader at this December's global summit on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, if Congress passes a watered-down bill or none at all. India, China, and other nations would see little reason to act on their own.
The likely setback in revenues and in setting tough emission limits has the Obama White House scrambling to redefine the terms of this debate. It has consulted an ecomarketing firm that, among its proposals, suggests dropping the phrase "global warming" for "deteriorating atmosphere" and recommends using "the dirty fuels of the past" instead of citing carbon dioxide.
Such rhetorical shenanigans reflect a reluctance to trust the American people to make the right decision for themselves. They must be given unbiased estimates on the price of acting against climate change.
For too long, environmental groups have painted rosy scenarios of a green economy with green jobs, while business interests have cited drastic damage if the US moves too swiftly from fossil fuels.
And yet, while a consensus exists among scientists on climate change, among economists, agreement on the costs of action remains elusive. Their economic-impact models may be only as valid as the financial models used by hedge funds before the 2008 market crash. Predicting the future economy or coming advances in energy technology or possible consumer behavior are risky.
At best, credible researchers, such as those at the CBO, can help Congress decide a sensible course. Lawmakers can also gauge possible public reaction in the US by looking at places where sentiment for action on global warming is strong – Europe, Australia, and Canada's British Columbia – but where the public and the government have also defined the limits of sacrifice they will make. (Australia just backed off a proposed cap-and-trade scheme that would have cost $8.5 billion over two years.)
If Congress fails to act, the Obama-run Environmental Protection Agency threatens to act. The EPA can largely ignore costs, if it wishes to.
Lawmakers must level with Americans on the costs – the cost of doing nothing against the price of curbing carbon. Leadership includes knowing how to deal with sticker shock.