What if we do nothing?

Many pundits are declaring that the tide for passing a comprehensive climate change bill is getting weaker, and that the possibility of getting a successful working one passed by the senate is lessening.  Both the New York Times and the Washington Post sounded this alarm in editorials last week.

While I am not sure this is completely true based on my count of senate votes, it is true that the public debate seems to have changed.  Rather than discussing the need for climate change legislation, the debate seems to have bogged down more into how effective and costly the solution will be, suspicions about the ability to keep trading honest, and whether or not too much is being “given” away to industry.

All of these are important, but they are only one half of the equation.  These issues all deal with the “cost” of addressing the problem, whether the cost is in the form of higher electricity rates, financial instability or equality of burden.  While we must ask and examine these questions, my own research and that of others indicates that a trading system can be introduced that will not “cheat” the public (though many will make money for their service of risk shifting), and that offsets can be made genuine and real.

What these discussions ignore is the “cost” of not addressing the problem.  There hasn’t been a really good comprehensive analysis of the cost of doing nothing since the Stern report in 2006 though the IPCC is updating its analysis and there are a variety of reports on impacts to various areas or sectors of the world or economy.

Obviously, if someone doesn’t believe that the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is changing the climate, then addressing this issue doesn’t change anyone’s mind, but for those that do acknowledge the very specific physical science pattern we see when the atmosphere contains more greenhouse gases (an effect that can be measured in a laboratory and is seen on Venus, Mars, and other planets) it might help to run down a list of what passage of this bill might actually accomplish in the long term.

I am not ignoring natural climate variation but am relying on models which have matched temperature change from both natural and man-made causes.

In theory, if the ACES works correctly in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted yearly in the U.S. as projected by the “cap,” AND if that reduction is part of an overall reduction by all countries in the world that is equal to approximately 60% worldwide in 2050, then we can hope that the average worldwide temperature will “only” rise another 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.  While this is not definite and does not specify the impacts in smaller areas, the models are fairly accurate on this.  Failure to reach any agreement will most likely result in an average temperature rise of 6-11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and continued rise in the future.  This breakpoint, between 4 degrees and 8 degrees is important because the difference increases ice-sheet melting, species extinctions, disease vectors, natural disasters, and heat related illnesses in greater than a linear manner.

If we do nothing, does that mean that the human race will become extinct?  I don’t believe so.  Though I am not an evolutionary biologist, it seems that we in the developed world will survive but we will spend more and more money on ways to cool and adapt, which will take larger and larger shares of our GDP in the future as well as making for a world which seems alien and less rich.  The developing world will not be so lucky, and the mass migrations resulting from drought, floods, and resource fights will cause further cost in the developed world to try and protect those countries from the increasing chaos of the poor.

It is true that technology may save us far more cheaply than we imagine but that is also true of trying to estimate the costs of implementing a comprehensive cap and trade system, so I am going to leave technological innovation of the table, since it could reduce costs whether we do something or nothing.

But what about other countries?  What if they don’t do anything?  It is true that we must get international agreement which includes China, India, and other countries accepting some binding limitation in the future.  Passing the ACES doesn’t guarantee that these countries will agree to a binding cap in Copenhagen in December, but it is almost assuredly true that failure of the US to make progress means that no international agreement will be reached in the foreseeable future.  This is also why the vehicle necessary to reduce GHGs should be a cap and trade as that matches the way the international framework is already set up.

So, if we pass this bill with some corrections to ensure integrity of the system, then it will cost us in higher energy costs, which most people can lessen by increased conservation, and other prices will begin rising as well, perhaps to as much as 1-2% of GDP, though probably less.  If we don’t move a bill through that has legitimate cuts and continued significant reductions, we will be facing extremely higher costs in insurance (because of increased storms), energy (because of less water, increasing difficulty in extraction and worldwide instability and increasing demand), and food (because of changes in climate, water, and demand) that will be significantly higher than anything we have seen before.  We won’t see them next year, and only a bit in 5 years, but by 15 years and onward, the costs will continue rising dramatically.

Again, technology may help us out, but if one believes that technology breakthroughs will lessen cost, this same argument applies to controlling carbon and other greenhouse gases as well as dealing with the effects.  Thus, we face a choice between costs now and much greater costs later.  If a Senator understands the science, this conclusion is inescapable.  I hope that we can keep the focus on this simple concept as the debate on how to reduce continues.