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Climate carnage is inevitable

·Senior Columnist
·5 min read

Let’s be honest about this year’s big climate gathering in Glasgow, Scotland: There will be far more talk than action and few deliverables. Carbon emissions nearly everywhere will remain alarmingly high, with a warming climate raising the price we pay, in lives and dollars, for inaction.

The good news on climate change is a consensus is forming on the nature of the problem. There’s broad awareness at this point that carbon emissions caused by humans burning fossil fuels are heating the planet and endangering our own habitat. There will always be deniers, but they’re retreating into an inconsequential fringe element.

The bad news, unsurprisingly, is that policymakers aren’t close to enacting measures that would stave off the worst of the damage we’re inflicting on ourselves. In the United States, President Biden earns plaudits for paying more heed to climate change than any of his predecessors. At the Glasgow summit on Nov. 1, Biden declared that “climate change is already ravaging the world. We are standing at an inflection point in world history.” This comes as Biden’s predecessor, President Trump, undid some climate measures and routinely praised coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Yet Biden’s climate agenda had holes from the start and it’s only getting flimsier. The single most effective tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a carbon tax. Putting a price on the source of the problem creates powerful incentives to find alternative sources of energy, and it lets market forces determine the most efficient way to do it. More than 3,000 economists, including 28 Nobel laureates, say “a carbon tax offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.”

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech on stage during for a meeting, as part of the World Leaders' Summit of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 2, 2021. - World leaders meeting at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow will issue a multibillion-dollar pledge to end deforestation by 2030 but that date is too distant for campaigners who want action sooner to save the planet's lungs. (Photo by Evan Vucci / POOL / AFP) (Photo by EVAN VUCCI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden delivers a speech on stage during for a meeting, as part of the World Leaders' Summit of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 2, 2021. (Photo by EVAN VUCCI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden doesn’t support a carbon tax, however, because it would violate his pledge not to raise taxes on any U.S. household earning less than $400,000 per year. Biden’s political calculus is probably correct: If he called for a tax that would raise the cost of filling SUVs and heating homes, Republican critics would savage him and voters would probably revolt. Some voters are willing to pay more to address climate change, but in today’s post-rational political environment, disinformation and demagoguery would very likely doom such a policy.

Biden may not even survive gas and heating costs that are rising sharply on their own, with no additional tax. Pump prices have risen more than 40% during the past year, and natural gas prices are the highest in more than a decade. One reason for these rising costs is the transition to green energy itself, which makes it harder to get financing for new drilling projects and reduces the likely return in 10 or 20 years, when solar and wind will more thoroughly displace carbon. Who’s getting the blame for rising energy costs now? Biden, whose approval ratings are deeply under water.

Without a carbon tax, the centerpiece of Biden’s climate plan was a clean energy payment program that would pay utilities that use clean energy and penalize those that don’t. But that seems dead, too, because Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia—a fellow Democrat—won’t support it, which means Democrats can’t muster 50 votes to pass it in the Senate. Some Democrats vilify Manchin as a revanchist coal hugger, but there’s not a single Republican in the Senate who will vote for any part of Biden’s green-energy plan, either. If there's some kind of sweeping demand to act on climate change, it's not remotely apparent in the makeup of Congress, where a near majority still seems more inclined to do nothing than to do something.

Biden still has other meaningful green-energy plans. In Glasgow, he announced new regulations to trap methane that leaks from oil and gas wells, a major contributor to warming. Still part of Biden’s legislative package are clean energy tax credits, higher efficiency requirements and other incentives to move the economy away from carbon that could total $550 billion over the next decade. That would be the nation’s biggest green-energy investment, ever. If a dysfunctional Congress can pass this program, it will start to move the needle, complementing things already happening in the private sector, such as the surge in electric vehicle sales.

But the problem is so immense that Biden’s goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 already seems out of reach. The International Energy Agency says global investment in green energy must total $5 trillion per year to halt global warming at current levels, with no further damage. As a microcosm of that challenge, the U.S. approach suggests it is politically impossible. If Congress passes Biden’s program, it would represent just $55 billion in green-energy spending per year, barely 1% of what the IEA is calling for. And the United States represents 16% of the world’s economic output. Europe is arguably ahead of the U.S. in moving away from carbon, but China and India and many other high-polluting countries are behind. If the world’s leading economy can’t get its act together, why should anybody else?

This isn’t defeatism. It’s reality. Instead of heading off the ravages a warming planet will exact, we will react to them and try to mitigate them. Sea levels will rise 2 to 5 feet this century, imperiling the coastal homes of 5 million Americans who will have water lapping at the front doors and many millions more in other countries, especially poorer ones. Northern cities will become as warm as southern ones, and southern cities will become tropical. Heat waves will get hotter and longer and kill more people. And future politicians will still bicker over what to do.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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