As Americans, we constantly congratulate ourselves on our spirit of innovation. Yet, we give our government no incentive to be forward thinking about important long-term problems like climate change. Obama and Romney aren’t talking about the environment because we haven’t really asked them to do so.
This contradiction isn’t our fault—democracy just doesn’t always reward anticipation. Politicians are accountable to voters whose main concerns generally include how to feed their families and keep their jobs and houses. And it is this combination of preoccupied voters and cowardly lawmakers that has kept the U.S. from tackling climate change in any sort of comprehensive way.
It’s no surprise that a recent Gallup poll showed 72 percent of Americans thought the economy was today’s most important problem. A mere two percent saw pollution and the environment as the most important problem. Yet, the two problems are undoubtedly connected. MIT economist Henry Jacoby predicts, “People will pay…[for inaction on climate change] in taxes, energy prices, insurance premiums, disaster relief, food prices, water bills and changes to our environment that are hard to put a price tag on.”
We’re constantly flooded with startling facts about rising ocean levels and shrinking rainforests. To those who pay attention, climate change is clearly imminent, and it’s approaching the brink of irreversibility. Scientists predict a nearly complete lack of wild fish in oceans by 2050. At the beginning of his numerical rundown of the current state of the climate, activist and writer William E. McKibben grimly states, “I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”
Denial isn’t the only reason that the situation is stagnant—for those who are thinking short-term, there is a valid economic argument against cutting emissions. The fossil fuel sector certainly isn’t a small deal, and the world economy is invested in the future of drilling. Construction of the southern part of Keystone XL is already underway.
While economic hurdles block a smooth transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, the carbon tax represents a potent economic solution. The Kennedy School’s Joseph Aldy showed his support for the carbon tax in his talk at Harvard Thinks Green 2 last week. A tax on carbon would de-incentivize the purchase of carbon and naturally force investment in alternative energies. It would provide the economic impetus currently lacking from the green movement.
Even conservative economist and policy advisor Greg Mankiw expressed his support of a world carbon tax in a 2007 New York Times op-ed, but he doubted that a carbon tax would make it through Washington. Mankiw wrote, “Republican consultants advise using the word ‘tax’ only if followed immediately by the word ‘cut.’ Democratic consultants recommend the word ‘tax’ be followed by ‘on the rich.’”
It would simply be political suicide for a Republican to support a new tax of any kind, and Democrats are too busy trying to get rid of tax breaks for the rich that suggesting a carbon tax right now might very well be too much. Yet, logical thinking would demand that our lawmakers push aside all of those political fears for the sake of doing something that makes pure and total sense.
China’s Communist Party recently released its new five-year plan, a strategic move that will end up investing $315 billion in measures for energy efficiency. And because of the one-party system, China can afford to be aggressive in the way it pursues its alternative energy goals. The National Energy Commission has asked each province in China to provide a plan for increased solar energy use by October 15. China remains the world’s largest coal consumer, but these steps represent a significant effort to reduce emissions. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of oil, but political polarization and corporate influence would block any clean energy initiatives of a similar scale.
So while China’s alternative energy plans charge forward, the US is stuck with little to no political or economic push for sustainability.
This problem is not unique to the U.S., and it’s why very little has been done in the way of large international agreements. Recent climate discussions have all failed miserably—it’s as if every time someone mentions the words Kyoto, Cop10, or Rio+20, the environmental community emits a collective sigh of frustration.
Our markets are so interdependent that changes in energy consumption have global effects, and therefore countries must tackle the issue through a combination of domestic policies and international cooperation. The U.S. could help shape the international debate on climate change, but it chooses not to because U.S. citizens have yet to demand the discussion.
Our government spends billions of dollars each year on defense. We stockpile more weapons than we will ever use. But the prospect of entire countries being submerged under water as a result of large scale flooding is in many ways equally as scary as a nuclear Iran. And just like our founding fathers were worried about the political freedoms of every generation to come, should we not be intensely concerned about the safety and welfare of our future generations? And should we not demand from our representatives that same view?