03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Global Warming Really That Different?

In a few hours I'll arrive at the UN Conference in Copenhagen -- surely the biggest environmental gathering I've ever attended and, arguably, the most consequential ever to meet. The sheer scale of the threats posed by climate disruption (and of the actions needed to protect us against it) does make global warming seem different from other environmental challenges we've faced. But in a number of important respects, it's not different at all. I think it might even help us understand what we're up against if we look at some of the lessons we've learned from those other challenges.

Lesson 1: Safety First -- It's Cheaper

If you listen to the so-called "climate skeptics," you might start to think that the history of environmental policy is one of expensive false alarms and unnecessary panic. But in reality, it 's almost always turned out that interventions taken to protect people from environmental risks were inadequate and too late -- and that prevention would have been much cheaper than cleaning up the mess. And history also shows that scientists, more often than not, underestimate the risks -- they are not Nervous Nellie alarmists.

Take formaldehyde. We've known that for decades that it's toxic. It's also ubiquitous and consumer exposure to it is widespread: permanent press clothing, particle board, and some kinds of plywood. Yet for decades federal regulators failed to establish safety standards for formaldehyde exposure in consumer use and, as a result, manufacturers kept churning out mobile homes that had formaldehyde concentrations higher than those permitted in chemical plants for workers -- much higher. Only when FEMA loaned hundreds of these toxic trailers to Katrina victims -- a population that was concentrated and easily monitored -- did the Sierra Club uncover just how bad the situation was. And even then FEMA stonewalled, resisted, and argued that the trailers were not the problem -- until Congress stepped in and finally forced them to get people out of the trailers. (They also had to force FEMA to abandon plans to simply sell these trailers to other victims.)

The California Air Resources Board, in the wake of the scandal, passed consumer formaldehyde standards. And this month the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works reported out legislation that would make the California standards nationwide -- an important step forward. Will this end the formaldehyde risk? Probably not, although it will reduce it. New scientific studies expected from the EPA next month will show that formaldehyde is toxic at even lower levels of exposure than previously believed -- so the new standards, while an improvement, will still leave millions of Americans still at risk.

The science of climate change is similar. Over the last decade it's become clear that global warming is happening faster than anticipated, that CO2 disrupts  the climate at lower-than-expected concentrations, and that the addressing the problem will cost more than we previously thought.

So taking early action to avoid risk is the prudent, cheap, economic course of action. One question I have often wanted to ask the climate skeptics is "What do you think the chances are that you're mistaken and we are disrupting the climate? And at what point are the odds of a global castastrophe high enough that you would favor preventive action? One in four? One in ten? One in a hundred? And do you have fire insurance on your home?  What are the odds on its burning down next year?

Lesson 2: Higher Standards Don't Hurt Economies -- If Applied Uniformly

Chesapeake Bay, the economic linchpin of the economies of Maryland, Delaware, and eastern Virginia, is in serious ecological distress. After more than a decade of federal action,  the loss of fisheries and biological productivity hasn't stopped -- largely because agriculture has been permitted to handle its manure improperly, which has led to huge quantities of toxic water pollutants in the streams that drain into the Bay.

Existing regulations have only 50 percent of the impact on pollution run-off that's needed. So the Obama administration has proposed to require livestock and poultry growers to obtain permits and adopt best practices. Legislation in the House and Senate would set binding pollution limits for runoff into the bay.

Agricultural interests in the watershed are protesting vigorously -- not because the rules can't be met, but because farmers in other areas (who would be held to  less-effective pollution-control standards) would gain an advantage. At a hearing before the House Agriculture Committee, Steve Schwalb, vice-president for Perdue Farms, headquartered in the watershed, claimed that the EPA's plans "would put our operations and our growers at a significant competitive disadvantage and would threaten the very existence of the poultry industry." Schwalb is no doubt exaggerating -- but to the extent that he has a point, it signals that the EPA ought to make the pollution rules more stringent for all livestock producers -- not just those in the Chesapeake watershed.

We're hearing the same argument in Copenhagen from opponents of ambitious targets and timetables -- other countries will get an advantage. Again, many of these claims don't stand up -- but to the extent they do, what we need is a virtuous race to the top, in which all parties agree to do more, rather than a vicious race to the bottom, where each party acts based on its distrust of the others.

Lesson 3: There Are Almost Always Better Solutions -- For Innovators

The difficulty with most environmental problems is that even when obviously better solutions are available, the incumbent big players stay wedded to and invested in the old, dangerous and dirty ways of doing things. Take the battle over mountain-removal mining -- there's simply no question that there exist much less environmentally destructive ways to mine coal, and that those better techniques can meet our nation's needs. But a series of coal companies that don't have any interest in or capacity to mine coal responsibly continue to fight change bitterly. Even West Virginia's Senator Robert Byrd says coal needs to listen and change -- but the mountain-removal specialists like Arch Coal will fight to keep their dangerous, outmoded practices going as long as they can.

Climate change is very similar -- there's a huge new advertising campaign from the American oil industry about the jobs crisis. Even though every available study shows that reducing our reliance on oil -- most of it imported -- would dramatically increase employment, the oil industry's campaign suggests just the opposite.

We can't listen to these kinds of misleading arguments. If we want to protect ourselves from special interests, we need to recognize their spin for exactly what it is -- an effort to line their own pockets at our expense.