David Adler: It's up to Congress to act on global warming

Special to the Idaho StatesmanApril 17, 2014 

Members of Congress and a broad array of candidates for political office across America talk endlessly about the need to cut spending and lasso the national debt to avoid saddling the next generation with an unbearable burden. But too few are willing to seriously address the dangers posed to civilization by the gravest crisis in human history: climate change.

The prospective dangers of climate change eclipse the challenges of intergenerational wealth. Climate science tells us that carbon emissions threaten the future of humanity. The authors of a report issued this week by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have declared that the time available to implement effective climate policies to avert the catastrophic impact of global warming is rapidly dwindling.

The UN report, which affirms the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists, has laid bare the grim reality of inaction. The major economies of the world must implement strong anti-carbon emission programs in the next decade or so to reach the goal of reducing total global emissions 40 percent to 70 percent by 2050. Failure to reach that goal would result in a global atmospheric temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit - the point when the planet would face long odds in surviving a very dangerous future.

The dire warnings of disasters, manifested in record-setting sea level rises, heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes, would span the globe. Humanity would be looking at a return to the Dark Ages. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has stated that the effects of climate change will not end "for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped."

The United States and China, the two top carbon polluters in the world, must act. For our part, that requires quick and decisive measures from Congress, which has the authority and capacity to avoid the impact of global warming. But Congress - tied in knots by partisan interests, indebtedness to the fossil fuel industries and election year priorities, which often begin and end with considerations about members' re-election campaigns - might not act without significant pressure from the American public.

Is it possible that our nation, standing on the precipice, will fail to engage in the action necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change? The gravity of the danger ought to be enough to provoke members of Congress to seek practical, bipartisan, common-sense solutions. In any scenario, we must reduce fossil fuel consumption and limit dirty fuel extraction on U.S. public lands. Clearly, America must embrace clean, renewable forms of energy. The possibility exists for compromise: reduction in corporate income taxes, coupled with passage of a carbon tax.

If that combination is at least part of the solution, there remains the search for means of motivation. That is likely the responsibility of the electorate, which must impress on candidates for office the need to act with urgency. In Idaho, voters should demand discussion and debate among those seeking seats in Congress.

The issues of governmental spending, reform of the tax code, governmental transparency and accountability, and matters of foreign affairs and national security are fair game for candidates as they move along the campaign trail. But silence on the critical issue of addressing curbs on carbon emissions and strategies to avert climate change cannot be condoned by voters. Yet, congressional candidates in Idaho have been virtually silent on the issue and implications of global warming, despite the fact that it is the most important issue of public morality confronting America today.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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