Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

In yesterday's post, I presented a (somewhat too heavy, perhaps) parable about a guy who refused to pay the dollar cost of necessary repairs on his favorite car. In the end, his miserliness and pig-headedness not only cost him his car, but took out his friend's beloved car as well.

The analogy I want to draw is with the current debate in the U.S. Congress about the Waxman-Markey bill, the cap-and-trade program designed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to combat global warming.

The Earth's climate is warming, and human activity (specifically, the release of greenhouse gases) is the cause. There is broad consensus among the worldwide scientific community on those two facts. No, it's not unanimous, but it is overwhelming.

Failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have dramatic and, on the whole, very negative impacts on humans. Moreover, the worst effects will descend upon the poorest countries of the world, who are least able to deal with it. And, throughout human history, disease, famine and poverty nearly always lead to social unrest. In the age of the "Global War on Terror," we are deluding ourselves if we think that what happens in sub-Saharan Africa won't impact us in the United States.

The signs of climate change are all around us, and are increasing rapidly. Here in Texas, we've just had a nasty heat wave. The southwestern US is in a prolonged drought. Farmers in Australia are in the midst of a long drought that shows no signs of abating. Individually, none of these events is unprecedented, but the predictions of global climate change are that such wild swings in the weather will become more common. Each of these costs loads of money and costs human lives --- global warming is not just about polar bears and penguins, nor about poor people half a world away.

The Waxman-Markey bill will cost money. It's not cheap. For two decades now we've ignored increasing signs of global warming. Like poor Bob and his car engine in yesterday's story, we've waited too long, and the cost of action and repair is increasing.

Why now? Why not wait until this horrid economy is better? First, there's never an ideal time for change. When times are good, we don't feel the pressure. When times are bad, we naturally and rightly become more conservative. But the bad economy provides a hidden advantage. We have a workforce in need of jobs, and reducing CO2 emissions and increasing the use of green energy provides new jobs. It will cost money to train people, and families that have worked in the oil and coal industries for generations will have to change, too. That's not cheap, and many of those workers are among the most disadvantaged in our society. Again, that's not cheap.

But look at the estimated costs of the cap and trade bill. Estimates on the per-person cost vary wildly, but let's be pessimistic and take an expensive view. Say $1000/family per year, over five times the Congressional Budget Office's estimate. There are roughly 100 million families in the US, that's 100 billion dollars a year. That's a lot of money. But it is similar to the amount of money we are currently spending each year in Afghanistan and Iraq. If, as the majority of scientists, social scientists, and economists believe, global climate change is going to cause an increase in social unrest, then even an expensive cap and trade system will be less expensive than fighting future wars to protect ourselves. Further, most of us in the middle and upper class can easily recoup $1000 a year or more by driving slightly less (cutting our driving mileage by about 20% would do the trick) or by cutting out just a few luxuries -- we're talking less than $3 a day here!

In short, if we do not act and act now, we are only increasing the damage to the climate and drastically increasing the future costs for us and our children. And, not only that, but we are increasing the costs and dangers incurred by our allies who have already started to reduce their own emissions. We won't just hurt ourselves by inaction. We will hurt our friends, and we condemn the poorest of humankind to the worst of the effects. And why? Because we are too ignorant to believe the evidence in our face and too cheap to spend less than three lousy bucks a day to save many times that cost in the future? If that's the case, like Bob we deserve the wreck we are heading for. And, being bad citizens, we'll take everyone else with us.

Or, we can change. It will cost money, and the necessary lifestyle changes won't always be easy. But (to paraphrase the Six Million Dollar Man) gentlemen, we can rebuild our carbon-based economy. We have the technology. We have the capability to build a green economy. Better, stronger, faster, safer. And history will judge us kindly for such an action.

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