Climate change deniers continue to be with us. But the release on June 25 of “Risky Business,” a comprehensive report on the risk to American business and political life from climate change, suggests that the reality and risk of climate change is increasingly clear to intellectual leaders of both parties. The committee that commissioned the report included three former secretaries of the treasury, two of whom served Republican presidents. When cap and trade becomes perceived as a threat to business and the economy, it will have a better chance of generating bipartisan concern.
The core question, of course, is what to do about climate change, once you recognize it’s a problem. Assuming one doesn’t stop with “throw up your hands, go hide under the covers and hope somehow in the morning it will have disappeared like the boogeyman,” the compelling need is to convert from a fossil fuel dependent economy to an economy that both promotes conversion to alternative sources of energy and spurs the development of not-yet-imagined technologies to make life without fossil fuels work.
And the next core question is how do you do that? There, the mantra “think globally, but act locally” probably has a fair amount of credence. There have been in the past, and will need to be in the future, global treaties governing climate change. In the absence of global cooperation, the actions of any one state or nation will be overwhelmed by the greenhouse gas emissions from other countries. China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon, with India and other parts of the world that are developing a growing middle class fast behind. The United States cannot limit greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change without the cooperation of the world’s other large and growing economies.
But, one of the persistent arguments of the developing world is that unless and until the United States takes significant action to limit its carbon emissions, they will not compromise the development of their own middle class. The reality is that much of our standard of living has depended on cheap and unrestricted use of fossil fuels, and developing countries very much want to provide their people with the same standard of living that the United States has achieved. In 2012, the United States emitted 17.31 tons of carbon dioxide per person, while China emitted 5.43 tons per person and India emitted 1.39 tons per person. China has a lot more people – but to bring China and the other major emitters to an international solution, the United States will have to make major progress in reducing its per capita emissions.