Pro/con: Should Congress work to combat climate change?
Yes: Any further delay will be catastrophic
Scientific evidence of climate change mounts steadily, and only determined skeptics deny its reality and the human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, that cause it.
The past six months have brought exhaustive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and now a landmark study by the U.S. National Climate Assessment program.
The last report tells us that climate change already is having specific regional effects all over the United States — from torrential rain storms and flooding in the Southeast to heat waves, droughts and wildfires in the Southwest. This assessment makes climate change a more concrete and immediate problem and it may help to build a public sense of urgency about action that has been sadly lacking.
The implications of these scientific reports are clear. The United States must try to limit the worst effects of climate change and adapt to the inevitable impacts, from flooding of coastal areas by storm surges to drought and water shortages in the West, that are coming regardless of what we do. These challenges call for governments at all levels to respond with creative, effective and equitable policies.
At the national level, President Barack Obama has done much through his executive authority. This includes setting higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, investing in new energy technologies and pushing for EPA regulation of coal-fired power plants that account for a large percentage of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Nonetheless, it is imperative that the Senate and House at least try to draft climate change policies, hold hearings, review the evidence and debate the issues. Congress needs to act for two reasons. One is that major policy changes are more likely to be effective and acceptable if they are seen as politically legitimate. In the U.S. political system, this requires deliberation in committees and on the floor of the House and Senate as well as approval by a majority within each.
White House and agency efforts are important, but they cannot substitute for national legislation. Congressional action also sends a more definitive message to other nations about U.S. commitment and a willingness to lead on solving a global problem.
The second reason is that executive authority is inherently limited. Executive agencies certainly can institute changes that make us less reliant on coal and other fossil fuels and also foster energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources. Yet the president cannot make law by himself much less forge the needed political legitimacy. Only Congress can do that.
What kind of policies do we need? Energy experts advocate use of a revenue-neutral carbon tax as the most efficient way to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
No one, and especially elected officials, likes to vote for a tax increase. But a revenue-neutral carbon tax is a tax shift, not an increase. The IPCC studies and the new report from the National Climate Assessment program set the agenda for national action on climate change. Congress now needs to be at the center of this important debate even as states move ahead without a national policy.
Michael Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Readers may write to him at UWGB, 2420 Nicolet Dr., MAC B310, Green Bay, WI 54311; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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