Global warming: the high cost of doing nothing

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Slabs of ice cave off arctic glaciers and plunge into the ocean. Glaciers disappear from Switzerland to Montana. Record high average temperatures and more severe storms everywhere. These are but a few illustrations of the reality of global warming.

Whether the earth’s climate is changing is no longer seriously debated. Scientific skeptics now largely agree with those who have been seriously studying the scientific data over the past several decades. The earth’s average temperature is expected to rise 1.4 to 5.8 degrees centigrade this century, and considerably more in the polar regions.

Humankind’s contribution to this change is becoming clearer. The carbon dioxide we produce every day through fossil-fueled vehicles and factories helps tip the environmental balance, trapping heat in the atmosphere and turning up the earth’s thermometer.

The burning question is how do we respond? Global warming is a pressing political and economic issue. Even though the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it is the cause of one-fourth of the world’s CO2 emissions. It is not only logical, but crucial that we actively promote solutions.

The cost of change has been the main argument against action. Many have claimed lowering CO2 emissions would trigger a prolonged recession in the U.S. This is one reason the Bush Administration withdrew the United States from the Kyoto treaty discussions in 2001.

Yet, a new report authorized by the British government argues the opposite. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change puts the price of not reducing greenhouse gases at 5 to 20 percent of global human output. This includes dealing with increasingly severe weather patterns and responding to floods and famines as sea levels rise and agricultural patterns shift.

The costs of dealing with climate change now seem reasonable. Most economists say switching to alternative fuels to stabilize the carbon dioxide output will cost the world about 1 percent of its total output over the next 45 years. Even if the figures in the Stern Review are inflated, The Economist, known for its prudent financial advice, argues it is better for the United States to act now than wait for catastrophe later.

The main areas of CO2 concern for the United States are power generation and transportation. Generation contributes almost 20 percent of the human share of global warming. The United States produces a significant portion of this, largely because of the cheap, dirty coal we burn to power electrical grids. The most obvious way to reduce the use of coal is through alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power.

Solar power is booming worldwide, promoted by governments in Germany, Japan and now California. In Japan, 10 years of subsidies have helped create a self-sustaining solar industry. California’s million-solar-roofs by 2018 initiative is a starting point to help produce the same results throughout the U. S. Wind power is also emerging as a cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuel. There has been a 500 percent increase in wind generation capacity over the past five years in the U.S., again because California and some other states have been behind the technology. While all of this is positive, there is still a long way to go before the United States calls itself a leader in alternative energy.

Globally, transportation produces about 13 percent of CO2 emissions. The United States’ share is again very high because of the large size and relative inefficiency of cars and trucks sold here. European countries and Japan have raised taxes on fuel to encourage buyers to buy more efficient vehicles. A realistic alternative for the U. S. would be to require manufacturers to produce automobiles whose corporate average fuel economy reflected the need to at least double fuel efficiency. A simple way to begin would be to include SUV fuel consumption figures in automotive fleet averages: their current exemption is a leading reason the United States is behind other industrialized countries in automotive efficiency. Promoting bio-fuels and hybrid technology through tax credits is another solution.

Most important, however, is our mindset. The illusion that we are saving money on the current energy-intensive, CO2-producing path needs to be challenged. It is a false economy based on incomplete cost-accounting. Now, as we are perched on the brink of enormous, harmful changes to our globe’s climate, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change reminds us that in global warming doing nothing is much more expensive than doing the right thing.

Kenneth Martens Friesen, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and history at Fresno Pacific University. He teaches a class called The Politics of Energy and the Environment and converts Volkswagen Jettas with diesel engines to run on used vegetable oil.

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