May 7, 2014 6:40 pm

Global warming and US gridlock

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Obama must use his powers to make up for inert Congress

Whether you are suffering from another hosepipe ban in Nevada, or hitting deeper potholes in Chicago, global warming is affecting millions of Americans.

Evidence of its impact is steadily mounting – as is the US public’s awareness. Yet the will to take tough decisions is missing. Next month President Barack Obama’s administration will issue regulations to curb carbon emissions from US power plants. With Congress out of the picture, executive action is better than nothing. Yet unless the US can show it is serious about putting a price on carbon, it will have little chance of bringing the rest of the world along. The deadline is next year’s climate change summit in Paris. It is vital the US shores up its credentials before then.

The developing world will undoubtedly suffer a bigger fallout from global warming than most of the west. Countries such as Bangladesh confront the spectre of submergence while China, India and others are directly threatened by the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. With or without US leadership, it is in their interests to take action.

Yet this week’s US climate change report underlines the growing price Americans are paying at home. The report shows that average US temperatures have risen by almost 2 degrees centigrade since 1895 with most of it taking place over the past four decades. The incidence of drought, big hurricanes and unusually heavy rainfall has soared.

So too has the price of dealing with the consequences. It cost more than $60bn to clean up after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – a storm that nearly submerged large tracts of New York City. Now the US is spending billions more to upgrade its tidal barriers. Meanwhile, the cost of water in the drought-prone southwest keeps rising.

Yet Washington still refuses to act on the principle that prevention is cheaper than cure. Part of its reluctance comes from the boiling frog syndrome. Most Americans accept that global warming is happening. Yet they chafe when confronted with the higher bills they would have to pay to avert it. In a recent Gallup poll, voters ranked tackling climate change last out of 15 priorities. In 2009, Mr Obama tried and failed to push through a cap and trade bill that would have put a price on carbon. Politics makes it futile for him to go through Congress again in the near future. His only options are to use the White House bully pulpit to galvanise public opinion and deploy his executive powers to raise the cost of fossil fuel consumption. He has plenty of scope to go further on both.

Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon as a pollutant. Next month the EPA will issue new rules limiting power plant emissions. It should follow up with curbs on refineries, cement plants and other polluters. Rule-based economics is certainly less efficient than market signalling. But if the framework is intelligent – and avoids picking technological winners – it can simulate many of the benefits of an actual carbon market.

Mr Obama must also do a better job of educating the public. Unfortunately, US environmentalists are fixated with stopping the Keystone XL pipeline – a decision Mr Obama keeps postponing.

In reality, Canadian oil sands will still arrive in the US by road and rail, and be exported to China and other markets. Mr Obama should approve the pipeline. But he should make it clear there will be an escalating cost to consumption of oil sands and other carbon-intensive fuels.

The White House lacks the power to set up a carbon market in the US – and the authority to tell other countries to do so. But the more Mr Obama acts as though a carbon market is inevitable, the sooner it is likely to happen.

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