Although climate change is perhaps the most serious threat to our future, the fact that most people have viewed this threat as distant and uncertain has made it difficult to rally support for policy responses. But climate scientists have now published evidence linking global warming to the recent explosive growth of extreme weather around the globe—floods here, droughts there, and rapidly rising average temperatures. The United States, for example, has just recorded the hottest 12-month period on record, and much of the nation is wracked by extreme drought.
As long as climate change remained a distant, abstract threat in the public mind, Paul Ryan and other leading Republican climate-change skeptics paid no political price for insisting that global warming needn’t be taken seriously. Now, with the realities of climate change staring voters in the face, that free pass is in jeopardy. The vivid immediacy of today’s extreme weather has created an opportunity to hold climate change skeptics accountable for their obstructionism.
President Obama and his surrogates should travel to Paul Ryan’s own drought-ravaged district in Wisconsin to remind voters that both members of the Republican ticket are avowed climate-change skeptics. Ryan, who has received substantial financial support from the Koch brothers, the most politically aggressive of all climate-change denialists, has voted consistently for their policy agenda. He voted against allowing the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. He voted to prevent the Department of Agriculture from preparing for extreme weather emergencies like the drought that has destroyed this year’s crops in the Midwest. He voted to eliminate White House climate change advisers. And he voted to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Department of Energy. Those votes attracted little scrutiny when climate change seemed a remote threat. It would be interesting to see the public’s reaction to them now.
Climate scientists themselves are quick to acknowledge that their estimates of the pace of climate change are highly uncertain. They go on to stress, however, that uncertainty does not counsel inaction. Recent simulations by MIT’s highly respected global climate change model, for example, estimated a one in ten chance that the average surface temperature of the earth would rise by more than 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. An increase that large would melt the Arctic permafrost, releasing massive quantities of methane, which is fifty times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. Life as we know it would be in jeopardy.
The good news is that this threat could be parried at relatively low cost. The International Panel for Climate Change estimated that carbon tax of $80 per metric ton would stabilize global temperatures by 2050. But even a tax of $300 per ton would add less than $3/gallon to the cost of gasoline. Simply by switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles, most motorists could drive as many miles as before without spending any more on gas.
A carbon tax that was approved today but scheduled for gradual phase-in only after the economy had returned to full employment would kill several birds with one stone. In addition to curbing carbon emissions, it would provide an immediate incentive for businesses to invest heavily in technologies for adapting to higher fuel prices. (Businesses, which are sitting on mountains of cash, have little reason to invest right now because they already have sufficient capacity to produce more than people want to buy.) And the revenues from a carbon tax would solve the problem of budget deficits without having to raise income tax rates at all.
To his credit, President Obama persuaded his fellow Democrats in the House, then in the majority, to pass a comprehensive climate change bill in 2009 in the face of intense opposition by Republican climate skeptics. But the lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate assured that the bill would go no further. Prospects for adopting a carbon tax (or its functional equivalent, a cap-and-trade system) dimmed even further when Republicans recaptured the House in the Tea Party wave election in 2010.
Because no progress on this issue can occur as long as Republicans have the votes necessary to block reform, it makes little sense to blame the president for his lack of progress. But Mr. Obama may never face a better opportunity to hold Republican obstructionists politically accountable. Failure to seize this opportunity would justify a harsh judgment indeed from future generations.