06/11/2014 01:36 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2014

The Glaring Moral Issue Omitted from the President's Emissions Policy


Climate change is indeed the moral issue of our time. Global warming will make every problem, including poverty, inequality, disease, racism and famine even worse.

Climate change is real, has a major man-made cause, and needs to be addressed with effective policies. Whether the EPA's 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from power companies compared to 2005 levels is really effective is debatable.

It may be another example (like the inadequate stimulus, like Dodd-Frank that did not break up the big banks, like the Affordable Care Act without a public option) of the administration taking on a big fight for only partially effective policies where it could have fought the same fight for something that worked better and thus would not be subject to claims of ineffectiveness.

For those interested, a dispassionate analysis of the limited-to-negligible impact of the EPA's new rules can be found here.

That is not, however, the point of this article. With these new rules, President Obama has become the first US President to enact a policy solely on the basis of protecting the earth from climate change. All prior regulations and laws have had additional goals, such as reducing dependency on foreign oil, improving national security, reducing the cost of energy, reducing pollution, improving health, protecting areas from oil spills, and so forth, all good and important policy objectives.

Moreover, it is highly likely that the efforts to meet the new rules will result in "overshoot," i.e, a better result than the rules require and momentum for further changes.

But, the president has not addressed the other great moral issue, the impact on workers. It is not enough that the total number of jobs in the economy may grow, and will grow more over time, as new industries will be created to serve the new energy economy. That, of course, is good news.

But, it does not address the legitimate needs of those who will be displaced. "Over time," or "the economy as a whole" does not put bread on the table for displaced workers or hollowed out communities.

No one is content to be "collateral damage." Failure to address this issue upfront and boldly creates political resistance to the critical policy changes that must be made.

It is, moreover, a moral issue. If society is going to ask, actually force (akin to the military draft), people and communities to sacrifice on the front lines of climate change, for the benefit of everyone, it must provide them just compensation.

The president should, therefore, announce a bold "Climate Change Recovery Act." Instead of engaging in fruitless arguments that can sound like hollow, pious platitudes, about overall employment, the "CCRA" should admit, frankly and boldly, that the country needs to call upon some to sacrifice for the benefit of others, and thus acknowledge the country's obligation to provide for them.

The CCRA should be directed to those areas and people who will be disproportionately impacted by the initiative to preserve the planet. It should provide training for the new jobs such as in new factories or retrofitting homes and buildings to make them energy-efficient, strong incentives to locate those new jobs in areas of greatest negative impact of the new rules (e.g., building wind turbines in rural areas of Kentucky or West Virginia), and recognizing that those will be at best partial remedies, direct wages to others who are permanently displaced for at least a decade. It is likely that those wages will prompt alternative economic growth in those communities that, today, we cannot define.

And, yes, the rest of us should be taxed to pay for it. Overall, those costs will be more than offset by the reduced costs to taxpayers of coping with the devastating effects failure to act on climate will cause.

Indeed, a serious, robust, sensitive policy to address the front-line soldiers in the battle against greenhouse gas emissions would create the political space enabling truly impactful climate change legislation to be enacted.

It is a virtuous cycle.