Senate Democrats talk about climate threat, increase risk

March 18

Senate Democrats are willing to talk about climate change all night if it will please a major donor, but when it comes to casting tough votes they take a pass. Despite all the talk, no serious climate legislation is on the table in the Senate. Worse, the same Senators who claim climate change is an urgent problem support legislation to increase the nation’s vulnerability to the threat of warming-enhanced storm surges and potential sea-level rise. Just three days after the climate talk-a-thon, all-but-one of the Senate Climate Caucus voted to gut recent reforms of the National Flood Insurance Program that reduced federal subsidies for coastal development. In other words, the same Senators who say climate change is an urgent threat are happy to have taxpayers and other premium payers subsidize coastal development that lies in harm’s way.

It’s easy to score the Senate Climate Caucus for being full of hot air — and all but two Senate Democrats for voting to roll back fiscally responsible and environmentally sound NFIP reforms — but they’re not the only ones supporting bad policy here. The same bill passed the House and President Obama is expected to sign the bill, even though he claims the federal government needs to prepare for climate impacts. Continuing federal subsidies for coastal development hardly increases the nation’s climate resilience.

It’s also easy to talk about climate change as a problem, but much more difficult to do something about it. Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases requires far greater emission reductions than current technology can manage, and no government on the face of the earth has yet proven willing to impose substantial costs on voters to reduce the threat. The EPA regulations being considered by the Supreme Court in UARG v. EPA are large enough to cost some utilities and industrial firms, but they won’t make a meaningful dent in annual GHG emissions — they were also never directly authorized by Congress. The same can be said for the EPA’s other climate-related initiatives. Indeed, Congress has never voted in favor of any policy that would reduce GHG emissions or mitigate climate-related risks to any meaningful degree. When forced to choose between climate and costs, the costs trump every time. Unless and until it becomes less expensive to meet the world’s energy needs in a low-carbon way, little will be done. I’ve proposed a few ideas to help on this score, but more will have to be done.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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