Republicans’ latest excuse for ignoring climate change — like all their other excuses — gets the problem exactly backward.
Last week, on Black Friday, the Trump administration tried to bury a congressionally mandated report on the consequences of climate change. This nonpartisan assessment, produced by scientists across 13 federal agencies and departments, detailed the observed changes in the climate so far — and the dire and deadly risks that lie ahead if we remain on the same course.
These include more frequent and intense natural disasters (hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires); huge public-health costs (worse air quality, greater transmission of disease through insects, food, water); and devastating economic damage (to infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, tourism).
The report refrained from making specific policy recommendations. But it did press the need for policymakers to do something to substantially curb greenhouse-gas emissions.
Yet, as expected, Republicans instead offered multiple, sometimes contradictory cop-outs for why they plan to do nothing. (None of their excuses are related to the fact that the fossil-fuel industry donates big money to the GOP, of course.)
Two days before the release, for instance, President Trump again suggested that global warming wasn’t real. Which the scientific consensus, as reflected in this report, unequivocally says it is.
Others, such as former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), explained on the Sunday shows that the planet may be warming, but we don’t know whether humans are the cause.
Once again, the scientific consensus says unambiguously that we are. As the report released Friday put it: “the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen.”
Alternatively, some Republicans suggest that, yes, the planet may be warming and, yes, humans may be the reason, but it’s too darn expensive to do much more than we are.
As Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) equivocated on CNN’s “State of the Union,” after plugging her state’s use of wind energy, “Any time that we are putting regulation out, we need to always consider impact to American industry and jobs.”
Yet the “impact to American industry and jobs” will also be enormous if lawmakers take no action: The climate assessment report forecasts annual U.S. economic costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars by the century’s end.
Which brings me to Republicans’ final, most confused excuse yet for ducking the most critical policy challenge of our time: The private sector will fix the problem for us, if only we leave markets alone to innovate.
“I think it’s clear that [the climate is] changing and it’s clear that humans are a contributing factor,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think the real question, though, becomes what do you do about it? Because you can’t legislate or regulate your way into the past. We have to innovate our way into the future.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also acknowledged that “the burning of fossil fuels” isn’t the “healthiest for Planet Earth.” Asked if he supported a carbon tax, though, he said no. The reason: “If we’re going to move away from fossil fuels, it’s got to be done through innovation. And innovation can be choked out through excessive government regulation.”
Here’s the thing. Taxing carbon is exactly how you get faster innovation. That’s kinda the point.
A carbon tax prices in, upfront, the hidden costs of burning fossil fuels, including pollution and the warming of the planet. In the near-term, a carbon tax disincentivizes the purchase of carbon-intensive products, of course. But over the longer-term, it also increases demand for — and thereby incentivizes the development of — cleaner, less-carbon-intensive technologies. If you want to accelerate innovation in batteries, electric cars, solar, wind, etc., a carbon tax is a no-brainer.
Additionally, if Republicans truly want to walk the walk on reducing “excessive government regulation,” there’s plenty for them to do. There are tons of regulations and subsidies that encourage use of fossil fuels — and slow down innovation in greener technologies.
Policymakers could also take action to crush the NIMBYism that impedes offshore wind farms. Or they could discourage or even preempt lots of other stupid state and local rules and regulations. These include building codes that inhibit solar, or the unstandardized, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction permitting process that makes installation more difficult.
All of which is to say that prioritizing innovation and the cutting of red tape are not actually an excuse for inaction on climate change. In fact, they’re key to the solution.