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May 07, 2009

Will we do anything about the environment in the middle of a tough recession?

By Alan Stoga

A few weeks ago, an area the size of New York City broke off the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the western side of Antarctica—an event which should have set off alarm bells around the world.
Antarctica, like Greenland, is a canary in the mine when it comes to global warming. The faster Antarctica melts, the closer we get to potentially catastrophic environmental tipping points.
That few noticed the final break of the ice bridge connecting Wilkins to the rest of the continent is partly testimony to the reality that melting ice is no longer news, even if it is dangerous.
But it also reflects the fact that the recession has knocked environmental awareness far down the list of things that are keeping Americans up at night. In last month’s Gallup poll, 86 percent of Americans said the economy was the nation’s most important problem. The environment was far down the list, mentioned by only 1 percent of respondents, trailing health care, Iraq, education and many other issues.
That will make it difficult for President Barack Obama to deliver on his commitment to re-establish American leadership on global environmental issues. However, sooner or later he is going to have to try to persuade the public that the imagined choice between faster economic growth and a healthier environment is a false one.
As the Stern Report demonstrated three years ago, the real choice is between not investing in the environment now, and seeing future economic activity decline.
But first Obama is going to have to deal with the increasingly rancorous Congressional debate over the administration’s proposed climate change bill.
Republicans, repeating their performance on the stimulus bill, have already declared their near unanimous opposition to the president’s environmental proposals.
That leaves Democrats to fight among themselves—which, of course, they are good at.
The biggest fight is over the so-called cap-and-trade proposal. That would require companies emitting environmentally dangerous gasses to gradually reduce emissions. If they exceed agreed levels, the companies would have to buy excess credits from cleaner energy producers. The current debate envisions capping emissions at 20 percent of 2005 levels by 2020.
Having to buy the credits would raise the cost of producing coal, cement, electricity, aluminum, chemicals and other energy intensive products. That is never popular, but is a particularly difficult sell during a recession.
Cap and trade—or a more general carbon tax—is probably critical to moving the country—and the planet—toward a sustainable future.
Meanwhile, Antarctica will just keep on melting.

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