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Now is Not the Time to Back Down on Climate Change

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Among environmentalists and green-minded thinkers, the angst is palpable. With a deep, protracted global recession all but certain, will politicians, leery of imposing additional costs on already beleaguered businesses, lose the will to tackle climate change? The early signs aren't promising. During a European Union summit meeting last week, several heads of state hinted that they may be ready to throw in the towel on meeting the terms of a plan agreed upon last year that called for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020.

Given the current economic circumstances, the plan had simply become too expensive, they said, and secondary in importance to resolving the credit crisis. Even meeting the modest target of cutting emissions by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 had become too onerous. "We don't think this is the moment to push forward on our own like Don Quixote. We have time," said Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, one of several leaders pushing for a relaxation of the new environmental standards. Predictably, the countries most dependent on coal and carbon-intensive technologies led the pushback.

While we have yet to see such outbursts from our own members of Congress, there is little doubt we can expect to hear some major grumbling if a President Obama or McCain tries to enact major climate legislation during his first term. It hasn't helped that many pundits have been urging the senators to restore fiscal austerity to the White House -- presumably by seriously scaling back on domestic policies like healthcare, taxes and, yes, energy and climate. Now I don't mean to belittle our financial crisis -- nor do I dislike the notion of reducing our federal deficit per se (who does?) -- but I believe that tightening our belts at this moment would only prolong the country's misery -- and potentially make it much worse.

But don't take it from me. Instead, read what newly-minted Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has to say about our current fiscal dilemma:

On the other hand, there's a lot the federal government can do for the economy. It can provide extended benefits to the unemployed, which will both help distressed families cope and put money in the hands of people likely to spend it. It can provide emergency aid to state and local governments, so that they aren't forced into steep spending cuts that both degrade public services and destroy jobs. It can buy up mortgages (but not at face value, as John McCain has proposed) and restructure the terms to help families stay in their homes.

And this is also a good time to engage in some serious infrastructure spending, which the country badly needs in any case. The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn't needed. Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let's get those projects rolling.

Mr. Krugman has always been a champion of infrastructure spending, and his words have never rung truer. The next president should create a modern-day Work Progress Administration to get the hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans working on new infrastructure (think public transit, energy-efficient buildings, better roads and bridges) and clean technology projects. Not only would this help us reduce our emissions and develop our clean energy infrastructure, it would also create plenty of high-quality green collar jobs, giving our economy just the boost it needs to begin working its way out of its current slump. Lester R. Brown, the visionary president of the Earth Policy Institute, recently called the budding green jobs sector the "great growth industry of the 21st industry."

Another argument in favor of sustaining, and even increasing, our spending on smart energy and climate policies is that delaying action now will only make future initiatives much more costly and risky. In his 2006 study of the economic costs and benefits of climate change, Lord Nicholas Stern estimated that it would roughly cost 1 percent of global GDP, about $540 billion, a year to keep emissions at a safe level. Putting off action on tackling climate change would result in costs ballooning to several trillions of dollars a year. You don't need to agree with all of Stern's numbers to realize how costly inaction could be.

And what about investing in our natural resources? We already know that climate change will take a heavy toll on many of the world's most vulnerable ecosystems, regardless of what we do, so we should work to ensure that what is left will remain as pristine as possible. A recent study found that protecting most of the world's forests, mountains, rivers and seas could be done for about $45 billion annually -- a pittance considering how many services they perform (sucking up carbon dioxide being the obvious one).

Finally, the next president should also boost research funding for scientists studying the local and regional impacts of climate change. Current levels of funding are anemic, and many are worried the recession will only make things worse. Further reductions could stall the considerable progress our scientists have already made in elucidating climate change and discourage many bright, young graduates from pursuing careers in research and academia. It's not as if we're talking about a major jump in research funding either: An additional $300 million or so would go a long ways toward funding many more modeling projects or research cruises to investigate the local and regional impacts of climate change. (As things stand, government science agencies are expecting a flat 2009 (sub. required).)

We may not have acted quickly enough to avert this financial crisis, but there is still time for us to forestall a much greater one -- the looming climate crisis.

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