'Can the US get serious on climate change?' A different perspective
I read with interest the observations made by my friend Dr. Saleemul Huq in the recent article "Can the US Get Serious on Climate Change?" (The Daily Star, August 7). The fundamental issue for us engaged in the climate change debate is not whether "US can get serious on climate change?" as Saleem asks, because US administration has been serious since the '90s, rather can we present a coherent and logical view of the science and economic policy to the public and the Congress? And sadly, my conclusion is that we have failed to do so.
Let me start with some important observations Saleem presents in his op-ed piece about the public mood on climate change and the political realities in the USA. The US public, as he correctly states, has not been "convinced by the scientists" on the evidence linking climate change to human behaviour. This has not been helped by the scandal that showed that some of the earlier findings of IPCC were flawed, and biased. As a Bangladeshi economist living in the USA, I also have noticed that in recent years public mood has further soured for two additional reason, (a) the alarmist tone projected by the scientists involved in the earlier rounds of IPCC and (b) recent hype within some elements of the media who try to link every recent weather-related disaster -- "droughts and hurricanes" -- to climate change. As can be expected, a rational and sceptical public will ask: if climate change is a long-term phenomenon, as we all seem to agree on, why are such natural disasters happening now? Is it possible that Hurricane Sandy and the recent weather patterns in the Rocky Mountain area are just outliers?
As for the political leadership, of course there are some groups, particularly in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, who are opposed to any measure that has the flavour of a tax increase, for example carbon tax; on the other hand, even the power and automobile industry, two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas, are in favour of cap-and-trade. In the Obama first term, there was a decent chance that Congress would pass the cap-and-trade legislation; unfortunately, the president lost the initiative and redirected his energy on getting the HealthCare Law through Congress instead. Nonetheless, cap-and-trade still has some powerful supporters in the Republican Party, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. In cap-and-trade, a market based solution, which has been tried in some European countries and in the USA on a limited basis, each power plant, for example, gets a permit to discharge a fixed amount of carbon. However, those who emit less than the amount allowed in the permit can sell the rest of the "right to emit" to another plant which has exceeded its quota. Thus, this trade benefits both plants and keeps the total amount of carbon emissions in check.
Is carbon tax then a lost cause? The short answer is no. In recent months, many advocacy groups have been mobilising public opinion on carbon tax. In Massachusetts, where I live, a non-profit named Committee for a Green Economy (CGE) is planning to place a ballot initiative for this tax. According to the proponents of this initiative, the state will levy a carbon tax on petroleum, heating oil, and other fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide they generate. However, before they are able to get to that point, the initiative must pass certain constitutional requirements. As one can surmise, even if public opinion is in favour of carbon tax, any new tax measure must overcome the checks and balances that are in place in a functioning democracy like the USA.
Finally, while it is true that we still have a long way to go, the clean environment movement in the USA is gaining strength and the newer generation is more conscious of the environmental costs of big cars, coal-burning power plants, and other wasteful practices. However, going forward, the US public can be swayed to act more forcefully to reverse climate change if the policy makers and politicians have the right mix of facts and actionable intelligence.
The writer is an economist who lives and works in Boston, USA.