21 Mar Tough Issue #5
Climate Change / Economic Growth
“No man is an island,” philosophized John Donne, meaning that humanity is inherently connected.
Greenland, however, actually is an island. In fact, it is the world’s largest island. While the world nonetheless does not seem to care much about Greenland—with its population only 56,653 and a national capital named Nuuk—what happens in Greenland does not stay in Greenland. It matters here in the United States and everywhere.*
*Greenland matters so much that America, most recently under President Donald Trump in 2018, has tried to buy it from its current owner, Denmark.
Let us explain where we are headed with this: Research has found recently that Greenland’s ice is thawing, one of many indicators of global warming. “This is bad, bad news for Greenland and for all of us,” one climate researcher concluded, citing its impact on sea levels and other concerns.
The difficult question today is what the world, led by the United States, is able to, should, must, and can afford to do about the impact of the earth heating up.
Climate and Economic Growth Basics
What the issue is: To what extent should the United States sacrifice current economic growth to prevent climate change?
Why this is a tough issue: Change is hard. While nobody wants climate change (except perhaps winter-weary northerners), neither does anyone want an altered lifestyle or a negative financial adjustment. Reducing climate change is expensive; thus, it impacts America’s budget, taxation, spending priorities, and national debt. Adding to the difficulty, climate change is not as much about today or tomorrow, but about future tomorrows, so concerns about it get pushed aside by more urgent matters.
Politically, the problem of climate change faces more than the standard partisanship hurdles. This issue pits powerful coal and oil (including shale and fracking generally) interests—and the politicians who rely on support from those fossil fuel interests—against others. In addition, fossil fuels have powered American economic growth for more than two centuries, and all politicians favor economic growth. Unfortunately, economic growth, which is hurt by high taxes, is at counter purposes (at least in the short term) with climate protection, which requires very significant tax revenues.
Where the issue stands today: Returning to our Greenland example, the deterioration of that island’s core is at its most severe status in more than a millennium. If the warming ice mass were to break apart and fall into the ocean, it would raise the global sea level by 20 feet. Meanwhile, average air temperatures are projected to rise 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in a century, destabilizing weather patterns and leading to more drought, wildfires, storms, and floods. Almost no one in 2023 denies climate change, or that it presents a significant global challenge, although some do question all of the catastrophism.
The fight is about what, if anything, to do about it. At worldwide summits, many countries and companies have pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to pre-industrial levels by 2050. But China emits two-thirds of the CO2 in the world, and it continues to build coal plants, while even the Western countries are long on pledges and short on action.
In America, the “Inflation Reduction Act” in 2022 included little that will reduce inflation, but a lot being thrown at climate change. Critics disparage these measures, which include subsidies for cleaner energy production, as a form of Green-lard rather than anything that will limit global warming much.
John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said recently at a major international conference that what is needed to fight climate change is “money, money, money, money, money, money, money.” That’s seven monies. Principle Based Politics believes, however, that what really is essential are consensus and political will. When those are present, the necessary financial resources will follow.
Principles involved: As this blog wrote in Climate Change: Applying Principles (August 17, 2021), the issue of climate change is one that balances the key governmental principles of limited government and protecting the vulnerable. This requires political leaders who follow principles of understanding, respect, and peace.
Solutions: Domestically, there are many actions the United States can take to lead the way in reducing climate change across the world. The concepts of tax credits, loan guarantees, and grants to incentivize cleaner energy production and use are a starting point. A national-cap-and-trade approach is another, and would unleash market powers to most efficiently reduce emissions. By enacting these programs, Congress can encourage individuals to buy low-carbon products like electric cars, and can incentivize businesses to invest in green technology. The Administration also can help by eliminating delays in permitting for new, better energy plants. Very importantly, our government can and should also fund any and all attempts to invent new ways to provide power, remediate past emissions, and discover other innovations.
These actions will come with a high cost now, but we believe the costs of not dealing with climate change will be much greater in the long run. There are plenty of areas in which the federal government could cut current spending to free up funds for important climate-change-related measures.
The United States, like humans and unlike Greenland, is no island by any definition of the word. The atmosphere, the wind, the seas, and their levels and temperatures are spread freely over the globe, flowing into and out of America. Accordingly, it does little good for our country to reduce carbon usage and emissions if other major industrial nations do not.
This is where America must rely on international diplomacy. International diplomacy, in turn, requires economic, military, and moral strength. This is what America and its federal government should lead.
Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics.
Look for his posts each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.