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Cher Gilmore: While Rome burns...

Posted: October 15, 2013 7:06 p.m.
Updated: October 15, 2013 7:06 p.m.

Yes, our legislators in Washington are indeed fiddling while Rome (in today’s parlance, our planet) burns.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released its fifth Assessment Report (the last was published in 2007), which concludes that there is now 95 to 100 percent certainty that human activity is causing global warming (up from 90-100 percent in 2007).

The report also confirms that the consequences of global warming are still taking place. That is, seas continue to warm and rise, oceans continue to acidify, glaciers and ice sheets continue to melt, and weather patterns continue to change.

But here’s the kicker: It’s all happening faster than expected. Stanford scientists found, in fact, that the current pace of warming is happening 10 times faster than at any time over the last 65 million years.

“What the report describes,” says George Monbiot in The Guardian, “in its dry, meticulous language, is the collapse of the benign climate in which humans evolved and have prospered, and the loss of the conditions upon which many other life forms depend.

“Climate change and global warming are inadequate terms for what it reveals. The story it tells is of climate breakdown.”

Deniers, be aware: this is one of the most scrutinized documents on the planet, involving more than 2,000 scientists and 9,200 peer-reviewed studies supported by massive amounts of data and reviewed by government, industry, and environmental groups in 110 nations.

John Holdren, President Obama’s top science adviser, said the report “represents the most comprehensive and authoritative synthesis of scientific knowledge about global climate change ever generated.”

What to do?

For the first time, this group of top climate scientists from around the world set an absolute upper limit on greenhouse gas emissions, a level at which we must stop putting these gases into the atmosphere or suffer irreversible climatic changes.

To have a 66 percent chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (the maximum “safe” level of warming internationally agreed upon), we can emit no more than 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide globally, or 800 gigatons if methane emissions and land use changes are included in the calculations.

By 2011, we had already emitted 531 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Since known fossil fuel reserves are 2,795 gigatons, burning more than 10 percent of them would take the world beyond 2 degrees of warming.
That means we have to keep 90 percent of coal, gas and oil in the ground if we want to maintain a habitable planet.

How do we accomplish that?

In his inaugural address, President Obama asked Congress to enact a market-based solution to reduce greenhouse gases. That didn’t happen, and because of congressional negligence, the president has been forced to use the tools at his disposal to reduce the risks of climate change.

These include regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants, the leading source of carbon dioxide.

Rather than complain about new EPA regulations, opponents of the president’s plan should consider a market-based alternative that is supported by a number of conservatives — a revenue-neutral carbon tax that gives proceeds back to households.

A wide range of economists believes that the market, rather than the government, is the best vehicle for solving the climate problem. But the market fails when there’s a distortion in the price of something.

Such a distortion exists with fossil fuels, whose price does not reflect the cost of damage done to society — health costs related to air pollution, security costs related to imported oil, and extreme weather damage, for example.

Adjust the price to account for those costs with a gradually increasing carbon tax and the market will work its magic. As renewable energy like solar and wind becomes competitive with and eventually cheaper than coal, oil, and gas, the economy will transition to clean energy and greater fuel efficiency, lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Citizens Climate Lobby suggests a tax that starts low — $15 per ton of carbon dioxide — and ramps up aggressively, adding $10 per ton each year.

Distributing the carbon tax revenue back to the public, preferably through equal payments to all households, would give consumers the additional income to deal with price increases associated with the tax.

The window of opportunity is rapidly closing to take action that will avert the worst effects of climate change. AsIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chief Rajendra Pachauri recently put it, “We have five minutes before midnight.”

The only way to stop the clock is by taking the path to a clean-energy economy, and a predictable, revenue-neutral tax on carbon would be a huge step along that path.

Cher Gilmore is a member of the Santa Clarita Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby and a resident of Santa Clarita.


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