Global warming: The good news and the bad
By Richard Webster, Power-Cotchett Attorney
As I keep up with the news on global warming, I find myself alternately pessimistic and hopeful. Most of the world is behaving like addicts. We prefer to pretend either that we don’t have a problem or that we don’t know how to change our behavior. But we do have solutions, they are not prohibitively expensive, and they are getting cheaper all the time.
The good news is that even without concerted federal efforts, we are making some progress. Coal is one of the most carbon intensive fuels; it is widely agreed that if we are to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we must rapidly transition to other fuels and renewable energy. At Public Justice, we have been working to increase the cost of using coal by making producers and consumers of coal pay more of the associated environmental costs.
On the production side, we have forced companies using mountaintop removal to pay to prevent their discharges from killing upland streams. On the consumer side, we precipitated the closure and clean up of the largest coal ash dump in the United States. These efforts, combined with new rules on air toxics from EPA and litigation from other environmental groups, have contributed to the closing of a large number of coal-fired power plants. Over time, coal’s share of total electricity generation has declined from around 53 percent in 1997 to around 40 percent now.
The bad news is that this change is not enough. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recently hit 400 ppm and continues to increase. Most climate scientists believe that above 350 ppm will lead to severe changes in climate and weather — extreme floods, droughts and storms. We are already seeing the evidence.
Many climate change deniers have switched from claiming we don’t have a problem to claiming that we don’t have a viable solution. Because the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 100 years, even if emissions dropped rapidly from this point, for a considerable amount of time we would still reap what we have sown from past high emissions.
Critics have used the long-term nature of the problem to suggest that there is no urgency. The opposite is actually true. We are already pushing the planet into a dangerous state that will have enormous consequences for at least the next century.
While we are moving at a snail’s pace on solutions, other countries have been much bolder. Germany is undertaking a rapid transition to a sustainable economy while also doubling energy efficiency and encouraging investment in renewable energy by guaranteeing long term prices for the energy generated. Although this has been expensive to date, it is anticipated that by 2015 the cost of wind and solar will be comparable to the cost of fossil fuel generated power.
Germany provides a good example of what could work here. While domestic carbon taxes or trading systems could be helpful, they are politically contentious and don’t help address rising emissions in the developing world. In contrast, directly helping renewable energy ride the cost curve downwards generates jobs in the short run and helps make those technologies cost-competitive in the long run, which will reduce emissions growth in developing countries. Thirty states have made a start on this already through renewable portfolio standards. We should build on these efforts by setting minimum requirements for renewable generation at the federal level, continuing other federal incentives for renewable generation, and phasing out tax-breaks for fossil fuel companies.