Trump’s climate denial doesn’t change the United States’ obligation to cut emissions

Michael Howard, University of Maine. Originally published in Bangor Daily News Dec 13, 2016.

If we want to know where a President Donald Trump administration is headed on climate change policy, we should not be distracted by Trump’s “open mind” about climate change, despite his repeatedly denouncing it as a “hoax” perpetrated by China. It is enough to see that he is appointing a fierce opponent of the Environmental Protection Agency to head the agency, and threatening to suppress research on climate change.

Nevertheless, Trump ultimately may drop the climate denial and take up the line of conservative economist Peter Morici (who once taught at the University of Maine). Morici affirms that climate change is a serious problem and is the result of human fossil fuel emissions.

“Rising temperatures will confront federal and state agencies with unparalleled challenges, as droughts dislocate cattle ranchers in the Southwest, insects threaten forests, arable regions shift north, rising seas flood coastal cities and new diseases attack humans, plants and animals,” he wrote in a Fox News opinion piece in 2014.

But Morici considers EPA regulations to reduce fossil fuel emissions “futile” because of rising emissions from China. And regulations, he maintains, drive businesses from the U.S. to China, where goods are produced less efficiently, and with more pollution. We should thus focus on energy efficiency, grow the economy and jobs at home, and leave the choice of technologies to the market.

Whether to subsidize new technologies is a debate worth having. But the problem with leaving choices to the market is that the market does not measure the environmental costs. The market price of electricity, gasoline or heating oil does not include the cost of rising sea levels in Miami, drought in the Southwest, or the collapse of New England fisheries. To capture these costs, and reduce the causes of the harms, we need to put a price on carbon, with a carbon fee, for example. We can do this equitably, benefiting Americans financially by returning the revenue as carbon dividends to all, as proposed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Such an effort is not futile in the face of China’s rising emissions. China depends on exports to the U.S. A tariff on Chinese imports will remove China’s competitive pollution advantage over American businesses, and it will induce China to impose a similar tax on its own emissions. The good news is that the Chinese government recognizes the threat of climate change and has promised to peak emissions by 2030. That’s not soon enough, but it is a step in the right direction (as is China’s heavy investment in solar energy). The U.S. can nudge China further with a comprehensive carbon tax that includes tariffs on carbon-intensive goods, and reduce our own emissions, which still account for about 15 percent of global emissions annually.

Before any of this can be discussed, the Trump administration needs to drop its anti-science denial of climate change. But expect, if and when that happens, to find further inaction based on blaming China. And be prepared to respond with the case for a carbon fee and dividend.

It also is fair that the U.S. should reduce its emissions earlier and faster than China or India. The latter are countries with large populations of poor people. They have a right to develop. And per capita, if a safe level of carbon emissions over the next three decades is 3 tons, India’s emissions per capita are still below that at 1.8. China’s are at 7.6, and the U.S.’s are 16.5. Moreover historically, Americans benefit from the accumulated infrastructure produced by releasing 27 percent of historical emissions from 1850-2011, during which time China has been responsible for only 11 percent, and India only 3 percent.

Given the absolute threat from climate change, developing countries cannot develop with fossil fuels on the path taken by Europe or the U.S. But their fair share of the responsibility for emissions reductions, and their fair share of the cost of shifting to renewables should take account of past emissions and their ability to pay given current levels of poverty.

Wealthy countries that have produced much of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that can reduce emissions with less hardship than developing countries, must assume a larger responsibility for emissions reductions than they are currently willing to do.

Michael Howard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

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