It’s time to put a price on carbon, NRC says

Substantial, immediate action on climate should begin, new report says

“Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.” As such, “it is imprudent to delay actions that at least begin the process of substantially reducing emissions [of greenhouse gases].”

So begins a May 12 report by the National Research Council. It didn’t get a lot of press play in the past week, perhaps because its 144 pages don’t say anything readers might not have expected this august body to have proclaimed years ago. But that shouldn’t diminish the significance of this report, its authors contend.

A lot has happened since 2009, when Congress first requested advice from NRC on whether to take action on climate — and if so, on what type of action.

First, there was the Climate-gate controversy (where some critics read hacked emails by climate scientists like tea leaves to glean the political intent of those researchers). Then there was the inability of world leaders to craft a new and binding treaty to control the release of climate-altering pollutants. Finally, there was that brouhaha — and embarrassing retraction by the IPCC — over the science organization’s acceptance of unvetted claims about the extent of glacier melting in the Himalayas.

These events “left a lot of people confused over what to think about climate change,” notes Stephen Seidel, a vice president and climate-policy analyst at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The fact that the new NRC report now concludes that the imperative to act on climate is as strong as ever proves to be a powerful statement, he says, and one that legislators are likely to take seriously. Whether they’ll act on it: That’s another issue.

In the wake of Climate-gate
“When we started this [NRC climate policy analysis], we frankly thought we wouldn’t have to spend much time reviewing the science,” observes Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a member of the committee that authored the new NRC report. Back in early 2009, he recalls, “the nation and the world appeared poised to take action on climate. There was so much anticipation that steps would be taken at the [IPCC] meeting in Copenhagen that there was real concern our report would be irrelevant.”

But with the failure of the Copenhagen Accord to galvanize resolve on commitments to dramatically limit greenhouse-gas emissions, he says, it’s now clear “our report is still timely.”

It’s also arguably stronger, precisely because of those controversies, observes Albert Carnesale of UCLA, who chaired the panel that developed the new NRC report (one of a series to tackle America’s climate choices). After those controversies broke over the hacked emails and IPCC errors, he notes, “we went back to the original [climate research] literature and all of the new findings that have emerged since the last IPCC report.”

What resulted was a 2010 NRC report: Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Its conclusions — which served as a bulwark for the latest report’s recommendations — “do not build upon the IPCC report,” Carnesale emphasizes. They are independent of it. By sifting through scientific studies and analyses, he says, “we could reaffirm that climate change is occurring, is likely caused by human activities and poses significant risks.”

Adding to the new report’s strength, Carnesale argues, is the composition of the committee that wrote it.

Its chairman, a nuclear engineer by training, worked for years as a nuclear-arms and defense-policy analyst (when he wasn’t the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard or Chancellor of UCLA). “I have no background in climate change,” Carnesale volunteers, “so I came to the project with no preconceived views about it.” In addition to the scientists and engineers on his committee, there were also businessmen (such as a former CEO of DuPont), retired politicians (including a former Republican governor of a coal state out West) and lawyers.

Despite their varied backgrounds, Carnesale points out, “We still could agree unanimously to a host of things that would be good to do.” These included adopting measures (be they carrots or sticks) to limit greenhouse-gas emissions; planning tactics by which communities and industries could adapt to climate change (“because there’s going to be a good bit of it to adapt to,” Carnesale says); and investing in R&D to better understand humanity’s impacts on climate and also how technology might help decouple the two.

Putting a price tag on carbon
Much of the deliberation that laid the foundation for the new report focused not on climate science but on the important and potentially costly choices facing policymakers, Boesch says. “And we make clear that it is not a dichotomous choice between mitigation and adaptation,” he says, “because we really need both.” Indeed, he says, “without taking action to reduce emissions, adaptation is going to be, in many practical ways, unachievable.”

Congress could turn to regulations to outlaw high rates of pollution, the NRC committee acknowledges. But “we think that the most efficient way to reduce emissions is to use economic markets,” Boesch says. Fuels and other goods or services that lead to a spewing of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases might be taxed. Or a cap-and-trade system might be implemented to allow sales of pollution rights that diminish over time.

Overall, Carnesale says, his committee determined that “the best way to deal with emissions is to put a price on carbon. It doesn’t have to be a high price right now, just one that people can see — and understand will increase in some predictable way.” This should foster private sector investments in measures to limit emissions, he says, or create new adaptation technologies.

And what about Congress, which asked for guidance on dealing with climate change? A potentially receptive Democratic Congress solicited NRC’s recommendations. But by the time those recommendations became available, the House had ceded control to Republicans, many of whom are vociferous critics of climate science and government action on emissions control.

It’s probably safe to say the current climate for greenhouse-gas controls isn’t warming.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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