What is Happening to the Climate? Part 2: What Can We Do? (if anything)

Provides additional evidence that climate change is occurring and argues that best solution to this problem is a tax on CO2 emissions.

presented some strong evidence for global warming--a chart showing northern latitudes temperature and north polar sea ice coverage from 1880 to 2011. Since about 1970 the temperature has been rising and the ice coverage shrinking, and these trends seem to be accelerating.

Here is some closer-to-home evidence--the "Plant Hardiness Zones" calculated by the US Department of Agriculture. They are based on the lowest winter temperature and each zone differs from the next one by 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The continental US has eight zones, with DC and most of Virginia and Maryland in Zone 7, meaning the normal lowest winter temperature is 0-10 degrees.

The attached graphic shows maps of the hardiness Zones in 1990 and 2006, with a larger map showing changes in the zones. The striking fact is that almost half of the country shifted to a warmer zone in just 16 years.

While some regions of the world would benefit from warmer temperatures, most areas would suffer consequences that range from bad to catastrophic--higher sea levels, more droughts and other extreme weather events, extinction of species, and other negative effects. CO2 is also making the oceans more acidic, endangering coral reefs and shellfish.

So what can be done? Some people see the answer in intrusive government controls, but the most cost-effective policy relies mainly on free markets.

To understand this, go back to basic economics. The free market is the best device ever created for advancing human welfare but it doesn't work in certain situations. Some of these involve what economists call "externalities". Burning of fossil  fuels involves a "negative externality", because of the CO2 released, but this cost is born by society at large, not by the buyer or seller of the fuel.

The most cost-effective answer, then, is a tax on CO2 emissions--a "carbon tax"--imposed gradually over many years according to a pre-announced schedule, so that businesses and consumers can adjust gradually; other taxes would be lowered to keep the tax burden constant, or the government could simply rebate the money to citizens. ("Cap and trade" is  roughly equivalent, but not quite as good.) Of course, other major nations would have to act similarly, so that the US is not put at a competitive disadvantage.

Given this financial incentive, the power of human ingenuity would be unleashed, as producers and consumers find ways to use energy more efficiently, and produce more of it from non-fossil sources. No one can predict what these changes will be, which is exactly why government should only provide a general monetary incentive--and not do stupid things such as mandating use of ethanol in gasoline.

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Sally Spangler May 19, 2012 at 02:21 PM
I keep saying this and maybe someone will go back to previous centuries and figure out that at one time in those previous centures or maybe just one century to see that winters were colder and summers were unrelieved warmer and drier. Maybe we humans are not all that responsible for the climate changes. Maybe if more people look at history and the weather of those centuries they will find that there had been a different climate and that difference slowly changed to what we are seeing now. So, the sky is not falling. We do not control the weather. It would be nice if the industrial part of our lives did not mean that we must have "things" of all kinds that spew particals and gases that are poisonous to our lives, but and there are many, many buts. Tax on those items is only tax - tax subtract money from all of us, but do nothing else. That nothing includes lowering or eliminating what is being spewed into our air!
Dick Kennedy May 20, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Studying past temperatures is exactly what climate scientists do, and they try to determine what caused changes--perturbations in the earth's orbit, variations in the sun's output, etc. They have overwhelmingly concluded that the current warming is mainly due to humans. We can't control the weather but we can affect the climate. For 700,000 years before 1900, the CO2 level never exceeded 300 ppm but it's now 392 and rising about 2 ppm every year, and scientists knew in the 19th century that CO2 causes warming. A tax on CO2 could be fully offset by other tax cuts, so that those who use less fossil fuels than average--generally lower-income people--would actually see their total tax burden decrease.


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