No excuses for climate inaction

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

In his confirmation hearing this week, the nominee to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, generously acknowledged that climate change is not a hoax (thank you), but then went on to say that the extent of a human role in climate change is uncertain and should be the subject of continuing debate. This, of course, is untrue, and sounds like an excuse for inaction. To set the record straight, in 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that our best understanding is that humans are responsible for essentially all recent increases in global temperature. Not only was this statement agreed to by a large body of scientists, it was approved unanimously by 195 governments. If that is not consensus, I don’t know what is! Whoever heads our EPA should understand this and should advocate for and enforce policies that reflect it.

The last thing we need is more public “debate” about climate science. That is not to say that we understand that science perfectly, or even that we understand everything we need to make ideal policies. However, we understand more than enough to know that we need to act much more aggressively to control climate change. Not only is this true today, it has been true for decades. Sowing doubt about the science is an old and (unfortunately) effective way to stall policy action — partly because it sounds reasonable to the uninformed.

Instead of rehashing climate science for the umpteenth time, let’s ask: what if there were solutions to climate change that stimulate economic growth, save consumers money, create jobs, and improve human health? As it turns out, not only do such solutions exist, but we’re experiencing them now, right here in the Northeastern United States.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a “cap and trade” system on commercial electricity production that includes nine northeastern states and was started in 2008. Cap and trade systems reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “capping” the total emissions allowed by participants and then letting them trade emissions permits among themselves to find the most efficient way to meet that cap. Our eight years of experience with RGGI allows it to be used as a test-bed to assess its real-world impacts and effectiveness. The news seems to be all good. Several studies over the years have shown that RGGI has economic benefits, including increasing economic activity, creating jobs, and saving consumers money. A new analysis by Abt Associates adds to this by confirming earlier findings that RGGI has had significant health benefits — including saving hundreds of lives, and estimates that those health benefits have an economic value of $5.7B. (This is in addition to other economic benefits.)

We’re in the early days of being able to assess the real-world impact of climate policies, but it appears that the RGGI success story is not unique. A revenue-neutral carbon tax in British Columbia has also had positive economic benefits while reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s important to learn as much as possible from these early experiences, so that future policies can be designed to be as effective and as beneficial as possible.

Even though the evidence is still limited, the idea that policies that help control climate change can also help the economy has huge implications and needs to be shouted, or I guess tweeted, from the rooftops. This means that the idea that we have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment is a false dichotomy. We can have both.

Meanwhile, climate change marches on. On January 18, the same day that Scott Pruitt equivocated about the human role in climate change, NASA and NOAA announced that 2016 was the warmest year on record. This was the third record-warm year in a row, and by the largest margin ever. So, with or without the help of EPA, we have work to do. I and the rest of the staff are more committed than ever to do everything possible to control climate change. With your help, we can do it. Thanks as always for your interest and support.