Climate change inaction too costly

Lisa Curtis

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Credit: Johnson

Credit: Johnson

There’s a small office on Capitol Hill that is playing a major role in determining whether Americans will have affordable health care or more renewable energy in the coming year.

The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan body in charge of providing economic data to Congress, has an incredible amount of power over our political system.

In June, this office released a report on the Affordable Health Choices Act showing that enacting the proposal would increase the deficit by $1 trillion over the next decade and would insure fewer than half of the 46 million uninsured Americans. Needless to say, the Republicans had a field day with charges that “Obamacare” would break the treasury while failing to provide insurance.

But on Oct. 7, the budget office released a report on another bill, America’s Healthy Future Act, saying that it would cut the deficit by $81 billion and drop the number of non-elderly uninsured Americans by 29 million over 10 years.

This quickly led to the stubborn Senate Finance Committee finally approving  America’s Healthy Future Act, a bill that does not include the public option but does provide more coverage through an expansion of Medicaid, subsidized tax credits, insurance market reforms and requiring employers to provide coverage.

Now that it looks like we might actually get health care reform passed, let’s turn our attention to this tiny little problem called global climate change. The debate over health care has put climate legislation on a bit of a hiatus while a debate over the costs of climate legislation continues in the background.

In early June, the budget office found that under the American Clean Energy and Security Act, greenhouse gas emissions would be cut nearly 12 percent by 2020, generate 1.7 million jobs and cost the average household 48 cents per day. This made the Republicans change their tune, or at least, adjust their talking points. Then on June 26, the act squeezed by the house in a 219-212 vote.

Now everyone is waiting on the Senate’s bill, which goes even deeper than the energy and security act, proposing to cut carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020. Recently, however, the budget office director Douglas Elmendorf sparked headlines when he testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that legislation limiting greenhouse gases was likely to lead to job loss, not job gain.

The budget office came up with a new estimate, saying that the energy and security act (a template for the Senate bill)  would reduce gross domestic product by up to 0.75 percent by 2020 and 3.5 percent by 2050.

This new estimate brings into question the chance of passing climate legislation anytime soon, which has many global implications. Most people acknowledge that if the U.S. is going to be taken seriously at the major international climate conference in Copenhagen, we need to show our commitment to cutting carbon by passing strong domestic climate legislation before December.

Without that, it will be difficult for U.S. negotiators to work with rapidly industrializing countries like India and China, who strongly believe that fully industrialized countries need to take the lead on solving the problem that they’ve had the biggest role in creating.

At the same time, its hard to believe that the budget office’s new estimate truly covers all of the costs. There are major costs to inaction: the budget office itself estimates that rising temperatures could reduce our GDP by three percent by 2100.

The so-called Stern Report from World Bank economist Nicholas Stern in 2006 took a much more pessimistic view, estimating that global warming will cost the world up to $7 trillion unless it is tackled within a decade. Stern also warned that unchecked climate change would turn 200 million people into refugees, leading to the largest migration in modern history as homes are lost to drought or floods.

More recently, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) wrote an joint op-ed in The New York Times, refusing the argument that climate legislation is doomed to fail. They addressed some hidden costs, such as the threat that climate change and continued dependence on foreign oil pose to national security, and the cost of sacrificing clean-tech jobs to countries like India and China.

Both sides of the debate acknowledge that the costs are great, no matter how you run numbers. While proposing to add to the $1.4 trillion deficit seems absolutely insane, not acting on a problem that threatens the stability of the world population isn’t exactly smart either.

Congress needs to acknowledge that while there might be a cost in the short-term as our country adjusts to a cap and trade system, in the long-term, it’s an action we can’t afford not to take.


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