Climate Change and Changing Policy: The Future of Planet Earth

Brittany Fay (Animal Science)

Connor Sullivan (Sustainable Horticulture)

Kevin Lindhult (Building & Construction Technology)

climate change pic

 

If we’re going to fight climate change effectively, we have to start by acknowledging that most of our economy is based on fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are coal, oil, and natural gas.  Oil powers most of the transportation sector.  Coal and natural gas power most of the electricity.  Now, in the first couple decades of the 21st century, in order to sustain our dependence on fossil fuels, we’re going to very risky, very extreme new sources.  You see this in things like mountaintop removal for coal, fracking for natural gas, offshore drilling for oil, and tar sands, which is the most devastating form of producing fossil fuels.  They take away massive forests.  The water in the streams and rivers is poisoned.  It has severe impacts on wildlife, on native communities, and it requires a huge amount of energy, simply to get it to our fuel tanks.  There is no such thing as clean fossil fuel.

– Michael Brune, Before the Flood, 2016.

As Americans, we live in an industrialized society that is currently causing damage to the natural world. Nearly all products of our commerce have ties to the consumption of fossil fuels, which are pulled from reserves deep within the Earth’s crust. These carbon-containing fossil fuels are in turn used to generate immense amounts of energy that power our very way of life. The combustion process that releases the energy from the fossil fuels also releases the carbon into the atmosphere, often as carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide remains in our atmosphere until it is used up in another chemical reaction.  Until that point, the carbon dioxide molecules absorb heat from solar radiation, heating the planet’s atmosphere. Through industrial expansion, civilized society is releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The carbon levels in the atmosphere are currently jeopardizing natural systems and organisms across the planet. There is simply too much carbon in our atmosphere and our planet cannot neutralize the imbalance fast enough. By continuing the emission of carbon through the consumption of fossil fuels, Americans and industrial nations worldwide are risking the biotic potential of our planet.

The United States was founded around the time of the First Industrial Revolution, a period known for the massive boom in industry and production that was made possible through the exploitation of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. The industrial boom initiated national dependence on coal, a fossil fuel, which has been sourced commercially from Virginia based mines since 1740. In the late-eighteen hundreds, the generation of electricity became the primary use of coal (United States Department of Energy, 2013). The industrial development of the United States became a possibility with the rise of coal and other fossil fuels, as the energy produced through the combustion of coal is one of the least expensive ways to generate power. In addition, oil is another inexpensive fossil fuel that is used to power transportation. There are currently more than 260 million highway registered vehicles in the US, and every one of them needs some form of oil to operate (United States Department of Transportation, 2016). As a result of our infrastructure’s dependence, transitioning away from fossil fuels will continue to be extremely slow and difficult for the United States.

The overwhelming excess of fossil fuel emissions contribute heavily to the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, which results in a plethora of adverse effects. Greenhouse gases absorb heat that is then trapped inside of the atmosphere in a similar way that housing insulation holds heat within a home. The resulting warming effect is strong enough to melt land ice and glaciers located at our planet’s poles. The melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet alone has been estimated to add, “110 million Olympic size swimming pools worth of water each year [to the ocean]” (Abraham, 2016). With this much water being added to the oceans, the scientists at NASA have stated that, “sea level is projected to rise another one to four feet by 2100” (NASA, 2016). However, it will not stop rising, as oceans take time to adjust to the warmer climate of land, and will continue to rise at equal rates for many centuries. The sudden rise in sea level could be catastrophic to the 40% of the world population that live near the ocean. Dramatic sea level rise will put, “millions of lives and billions of dollars worth of property and infrastructure at risk” (Global Warming Impacts, 2011). The scientists at Global Warming Impacts (2011) also warn that the rise in saltwater will intrude the groundwater drinking supplies, irrigation systems, and low lying agricultural fields. The intrusion of saltwater into freshwater sources will greatly hinder food production and will be detrimental to coastal communities across the world.

The oceans play an important role in regulating the Earth’s climate. A change in sea level and ocean currents will ultimately affect terrestrial weather patterns. The warming temperature will intensify these weather patterns, disrupting current precipitation distributions and leading to lasting droughts and raging forest fires. On the other hand, the warming atmosphere also holds more moisture, and extreme rainfall and floods will have a occur more frequently. Coastal communities will face storm surges and coastal flooding, and tropical regions will battle even more intense hurricanes and typhoons (Global Warming Impacts, 2011).

In addition to the effects of fossil fuels on land and sea, fossil fuel emissions also affect our air quality. The warm air and pollutants from power plants and cars combine to produce smog. China is notorious for having smog, and people often wear face masks in an attempt to minimize breathing contaminated air. As carbon emissions continue to increase, smog may be a part of the Americans’ future as well (Global Warming Impacts, 2011). Changes in air composition are not only detrimental to the humans who breathe it, but all other terrestrial organisms.

Climate change has become a more divisive issue as the calls for action have increased.  The public and those in power who reject climate change have countless reasons to delay legislation and continue our harmful daily lifestyles. They are the people who claim that the climate is not changing, with some even going as far to believe the Earth is in a state of global cooling. As of 2014, a whopping 18% of the American population did not believe in climate change, but unfortunately, this type of ignorance does not translate to reality (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2015). The last decade, 2001-2010, was the warmest decade in the history of recorded global average temperatures (Global Warming Impacts, 2011). These statistics are reinforced by the 97% of climate scientists who agree that climate change is not only real, but brought about by human forcing (NASA, 2016).  

The continued use of fossil fuels and the lack of action by politicians can be linked to the lobbying efforts of large corporations in the energy industry. Republican politicians such as James Inhofe, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Mitch McConnell are a few examples of politicians who have been bought out by the fossil fuel industry. They have all received amounts in excess of $1,000,000 to deny the impacts of these carbon emitting fuels (Stevens et al., 2016). Unfortunately, these false allegations hurt the public’s opinion on climate change by creating confusion on where the facts lie, and aids the postponement of making the necessary changes to energy policy.

Equally as problematic, of the 63% of the US population that believe in climate change, 55% do not think it will affect them (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2015). The main concerns coming from this group are that climate change will not impact us in our lifetime, and that carbon taxes and commodity price increases will make the cost of living too high. Distrust in politicians leads some of the public to think that revenue from carbon taxes will not help reduce income taxes or create clean energy sector jobs, but instead be used to benefit donors and the self interests of those politicians. Despite widespread denial, by 2100 we can expect the global average temperature to rise by 3.1-7.2 degrees fahrenheit (Global Warming Impacts, 2016). Alanis Obomsawin forecasted our endgame with the quote, “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money” (Quote Investigator, 2011).

The United States is currently ranked as the second-largest emitter of carbon pollution in the world at 6,714 million metric tons (MMT) per year (Eberhard, 2014). Despite this fact, the current legal structure of the United States is insufficient in its aims to control human-caused climate change, which can only be offset by putting a price on carbon emissions. The Obama administration put forth the Clean Power Plan in 2015 in an attempt to curb carbon emissions by optimizing the transition from coal-powered energy generation to renewable energy sources. The plan is problematic in its administration, however, as the options for cutting emissions can range anywhere from investment in natural gas and energy efficiency designs, to renewable energy systems, such as solar and wind. The available revenue is spread thin and cannot be wholly focused on reducing emissions by switching to renewable, clean energy solutions. The most problematic part of the plan is that individual states are responsible for developing enforcement policies and quotas (Environmental Protection Agency, 2016). Therefore, state legislatures vary indefinitely depending on which political party holds the majority of seats in congress. A more rigorous plan must be put into action as the Clean Power Plan does an insufficient job of enforcing carbon emissions.

Carbon pricing is a concept that has the ability to drastically curb human-caused, or anthropogenic, climate change. The carbon pricing strategy simply designates a price on carbon emissions, which will make the production and consumption of fossil fuels much more expensive. The ultimate goal of carbon pricing is to phase out fossil fuels entirely.

The World Bank holds the following stance on carbon pricing:

A price on carbon helps shift the burden for the damage back to those who are responsible for it, and who can reduce it. Instead of dictating who should reduce emissions where and how, a carbon price gives an economic signal and polluters decide for themselves whether to discontinue their polluting activity, reduce emissions, or continue polluting and pay for it. In this way, the overall environmental goal is achieved in the most flexible and least-cost way to society. The carbon price also stimulates clean technology and market innovation, fuelling new, low-carbon drivers of economic growth. (The World Bank, 2016)

There is currently a coalition between northeastern states in the US that mandates cap and reduction strategies for carbon emissions. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a policy that mandates that each participating state sell their emission allowances by auction. The proceeds are invested in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other socially beneficial programs (RGGI, 2016). The new requirement to have limited availability of emission allowances drastically increases their selling price, which generates profit for the state to invest in renewable energy. Economically, the RGGI’s cap and trade system, also known as an emissions trading scheme (ETS), “allows those industries with low emissions to sell their extra allowances to larger emitters. By creating supply and demand for emissions allowances, an ETS establishes a market price for greenhouse gas emissions” (The World Bank, 2016). Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have adopted the RGGI, with many other states moving towards similar policies. The methods of ETS have proven to work where implemented, and total regional emissions from the energy sector have dropped significantly since the creation of the RGGI in 2009 (Murray & Maniloff, 2015, p.581). The RGGI will also work to decrease overall carbon dioxide emissions through the principle of a diminishing cap, which will decrease total allowed emissions by 2.5 percent annually from 2015 to 2020. The nine RGGI states are projected to supplement local economies with upwards of $8 billion by the year 2020 (Eberhard, 2014). Through steadily decreasing caps on carbon emissions, cap and trade systems will effectively decrease overall carbon emissions while benefitting both the energy industry and society as a whole.

Similar to an ETS, a carbon tax will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A carbon tax puts a tax rate on greenhouse gas emissions by assessing the carbon content in fossil fuels, however, this tax rate is not rigidly defined like the price on carbon set by ETS (The World Bank, 2016). The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the social cost, the price that society is owed, is roughly $39 per ton of carbon emissions. In places where a carbon tax is currently in place, a polluter threshold applies. The threshold screens out smaller businesses with low carbon emissions that likely cannot bear the load of another tax, while ensuring that larger polluters pay for what they emit. The threshold in Korea, California, and Quebec is set to 25,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. For example, at the rate of $39 per ton and 25,000 metric tons of carbon emissions, the tax revenue generated from such a business would be $975,000. At that threshold, there would be 48 large businesses in the state of Oregon who would be taxed. Even if the threshold was lowered to 10,000 metric tons of emissions, only 49 businesses would have to pay the tax, which demonstrates that the carbon tax thresholds currently in place only target those doing the majority of damage and relieve the social costs of carbon emissions (Eberhard, 2014). Although the threshold policy of a carbon tax swings in favor of the general public, the revenue investment destination is something that is vigorously debated.

The proposal of a national ETS policy, one similar to the RGGI, is currently more realistic than the proposal of a carbon tax. Both measures of carbon pricing are effective in limiting the production and consumption of fossil fuels by forcing polluters to pay for their carbon emissions, however, politicians see them entirely differently. When it comes to reaching a consensus between political parties, agreeing on a new tax proposal seems unlikely. According to Al Gore, “a cap-and-trade system is also essential and actually offers a better prospect for a global agreement, in part because it is difficult to imagine a harmonized global CO2 tax. Moreover, I have long recognized that our political system has special difficulty in considering a CO2 tax even if it is revenue neutral” (as quoted in Broder, 2009). Representative Edward J. Markey also commented on the possibilities of new emissions legislature, saying, “I am aware of the economic arguments for a carbon tax, but politics is the art of the possible, and I think cap-and-trade is possible” (as quoted in Broder, 2009).  However, the public has various support levels depending on how the projected tax revenue is to be invested. According to Amdur, Rabe, and Borick (2014), the public, regardless of Democrat, Republican, or Independent party affiliation, generally disapproves of a carbon tax with an unspecified revenue destination. Instead, the public supports a revenue neutral carbon tax, which would return revenue directly to the public via a check. With the highest approval rating of any surveyed revenue application, 60% of the public supports the use of carbon tax revenue to fund research and development of renewable energy solutions (Amdur et al., 2014). While politicians are the individuals who directly mandate taxation, public opinion is the real driving force behind national policy.  A public informed with the scientific facts that demonstrate the need to limit carbon emissions can change our national policy and limit the effect that our national emissions have on global climate.

Anthropogenic climate change, driven by the increased consumption of fossil fuels, could be offset by the implementation of carbon tax and emissions trading scheme in the United States. While implementation of a national carbon tax might not be presently feasible, the ultimate remedy for our changing climate would be a combination of nation-wide ETS and carbon tax. The ETS will keep businesses under an emissions cap, forcing the allowed emissions to be bought and sold between industries. The profits of trading are funnelled directly into renewable energy solutions and overall carbon emissions will be limited. By curbing our emissions and investing in renewable energy sources at this point in time, the public will be gently ushered into accepting that they do have a role to play in climate change. Currently, the RGGI offsets about 22% of total carbon emissions in participating states by reinvesting program revenue in renewable energy and energy efficiency research. Supplementing ETS with a carbon tax later on will provide further investment in clean energy solutions and, more importantly, the increase in the price of goods produced using fossil fuels will cause the public to seek out less environmentally destructive options. There are currently several countries that mandate both a carbon tax and ETS. Ireland, for example, utilizes a carbon tax to charge “sectors that are not covered by the EU [European Union] ETS cap” (Eberhard, 2014). Other countries use both ETS and carbon tax in specific sectors that need to drastically dial back emissions. Implementing partial or complete carbon tax and ETS policies would dramatically alter our funding of renewable energy and energy efficiency in the US. In addition, the proposed combination would change the rate at which we consume fossil fuels, which will directly alleviate the negative effects of anthropogenic climate change.  

Based on aforementioned statistics regarding the alarming state of our global climate, we cannot afford to wait any longer. As the second-largest atmospheric polluter in the world, it is the duty of the United States to take drastic steps to cease and remediate the negative effects of carbon pollution (Eberhard, 2014). Arguments against ETS and carbon tax focus on the immediate hike in prices and loss of jobs in the fossil fuel industry. By replacing the fossil fuel industry jobs with those in the renewable energy sector, the employment deficit will be offset and overall employment nationwide will be increased. To compensate for imminent price increase of goods produced with fossil fuels, there is a proposed shift of taxes on payroll to taxes on carbon. The proposed shift essentially decreases the amount of taxes taken from a worker’s paycheck so that workers have the income to deal with any price jumps, as the entire idea of the carbon tax is to deter consumers from purchasing goods that are produced using fossil fuels. New products that do not utilize as many fossil fuels will be less expensive, as they will have less applied tax, and the price difference will direct the public towards environmentally safe products. Through these basic economic principles, the carbon tax and ETS will radically change the types of products that we see in stores. By producing environmentally friendly products, the global economy is allowing the Earth to reform into the planet that existed before man’s exploitation of fossil fuels.

The sources reviewed provide evidence to the conclusion that humankind is currently the leading contributor to global warming. Through economic systems of carbon pricing, it is expected that society will transition away from fossil fuels as a means of energy production. An ETS would guide companies towards emission-reducing strategies, in a way that would be cost-effective for both producers and consumers. The implementation of a carbon tax would also reduce industrial emissions while simultaneously providing revenue that can be used for sustainable energy solutions. We have seen the effectiveness of the RGGI in nine US states, and the success of carbon tax abroad. If carbon pricing solutions can be successfully administered on a national level in the US, the entire planet’s atmosphere will become cleaner and the global temperature will recede. It is not only for the good of the American people that we cut carbon emissions, but for the sake of peoples worldwide.

Evan

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