Climate silence will cost the United States

I recently replied to ta question on the National Journal blog, “How is the absence of discussion about global warming going to affect our ability to do something about it?”

You can read more on the original blog post and other responses at the National Journal.

Here is my response:The near-absence of climate change from the recent national debate will hurt the United States economy and the global effort to address climate change.

Aside from brief mentions in his acceptance speech, at a few campaign stops, and in an MTV interview, President Obama has not raised climate change recently, while Governor Romney has gone silent on the issue since the mocking mention in his acceptance speech.

Worst of all, the campaigns’ silence is emblematic of a society-wide climate silence. Just a few years ago, there was much more discussion about climate change.  After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, climate change was on the cover of almost every national news magazine. But following the failure of cap-and-trade legislation, politicians, businesses, faith leaders, and even many environmentalists fell silent, leaving the naysayers to fill the void. No wonder the public ranks climate change at the bottom of its list of priorities.

This, despite the fact that climate change is happening now and faster than anticipated, science points unequivocally to human activity as the primary cause, and the predicted increase of droughts, floods, wildfires, heat waves, and major storms like Hurricane Sandy has real costs to our economy and well-being.

Does it matter that our elected representatives aren’t talking about climate change?  Yes, because we need them to hammer out the policies that will address it.

Granted, both President Obama and Governor Romney are talking a lot about energy, and energy policy has huge and direct implications for climate change. Obama has consistently supported low-emitting technologies ranging from wind power to carbon capture and storage. Both candidates support research and development for energy technologies, including through the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), a branch of the Department of Energy established in 2007 to focus on transformational energy research.

But while it’s fine for the federal government to invest in clean energy, only the private market will be able to sort out and deploy the best low-emitting technologies, and that isn’t going to happen without a price on carbon emissions.

Market-based greenhouse gas reduction programs are either established or in the works in other nations – the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and China – but they can only go so far in the competitive global economy without the United States doing its share. Two greenhouse gas cap-and-trade programs in the United States — one covering power plants in nine northeastern states and California’s soon-to-be launched economy-wide program — show that we can do this here at home as well.

For reasons good and bad (the vehicle fuel economy standards, the new access to shale gas, and the recession), U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are projected to be near or below 2005 levels through 2035.  But we are not nearly on track to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, a target that would reduce the risk of the worst consequences of climate change. To solve this problem, we must fully enlist the effort of the largest and most innovative economy in the history of the world.

Given the national climate silence of the past three years and the nasty partisanship of the current political season, perhaps it was just as well that the presidential candidates didn’t brawl over climate change, which might have risked driving the partisan wedge deeper into the issue. Once this election is over, however, we have to start facing the climate change problem again or we aren’t going to solve it.