June 25, 2013
The La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant
Smoke rises from the stacks of the La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kan. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

Today, President Obama will make a major speech outlining ways in which the United States can reduce its carbon emissions, but the deniers and appeasers of climate change don’t have to listen to the speech to give a response.

Their criticism is handy and on the shelf; after all, they’ve been leveling it for more than two decades as the Earth has gotten hotter, and the weather has turned from weird to destructive. An articulate example of this criticism may be found in my colleague Ed Roger’s post yesterday. The gist of Ed’s argument is that “if” global warming is real, Obama’s policies won’t do anything to solve it, as China and India continue to dump carbon into the atmosphere. But what Obama’s policies to cut global-warming emissions will do, Ed argues, is raise utility bills. There in a nutshell is the simple and compelling negative frame many Republicans have applied to multiple attempts to rein in carbon emissions: Degrade the science; that’s the “if” and then say it’s pointless for the United States to lead when others won’t join them.  But all this is just the warm-up for the kicker: higher utility bills.

Like many good political arguments, this one has worked because it contains some truth.  China and India are growing, and while China in particular is investing billions in low-carbon energy, it is also burning more and more coal. China’s energy policy really is “all of the above” and its carbon trajectory is frightening, but also reversible. And utility bills may indeed go up in some areas of the country that rely on older coal-fired power plants. (The natural gas boom could be a mitigating factor here.)

In the face of these arguments, proponents of carbon reductions have lacked an effective response. It’s time to take their cost argument head on. Coal and other high carbon fuels may look cheaper on a power bill, but that bill doesn’t reflect the true cost of carbon. For example, extreme weather events cost our nation $188 billion between 2011-2012. And January’s painful fiscal cliff deal to raise revenues to reduce the deficit? The first year of reductions was completely off-set by the disaster relief package for Sandy. But for an even more vivid example of the costs of carbon, check out this article in Rolling Stone. In South Florida, sea level rise is already forcing local officials to spend millions to protect drinking water supplies from salt-water encroachment. And, in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed spending billions to protect the city against flooding from rising seas. The costs of carbon are no longer theoretical; they’re real and growing.