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On most things we can muddle through, for climate change that just won’t do

On most things we can muddle through, for climate change that just won't do

There is no planet B

When Congress makes a mistake in determining important economic policy like setting the tax rate or implementing a new trade policy, the results can be pretty awful. Unexpected inflation might take place, jobs might be lost, and personal savings might crumble. In the most severe cases, these disruptions might result in economic recession, or worse, a more sustained depression. It goes without saying, this can be devastating- on a personal, national, and even global level.

However, in the aftermath of even the most severe of these crises, individual people have proven resilient. We “Keep Calm and Carry On”, as the saying goes. Even when the most sensitive economic policy goes awry, the consequences are usually constrained to economic matters. A mistake in tax policy can certainly cause suffering, but it cannot result in the end of the world.

This principle applies for many of the most important matters in the American political landscape. Immigration, education, healthcare, and of course economic policy are critically important, but our collective resilience allows for politicians to gradually tweak policy to match the nation’s needs and mood. The American political system is designed to process these sorts of changes incrementally at the national level while giving local decision makers the ability to implement policy in a way that suits their constituencies. Put another way- for most things in American political life, policy makers have the opportunity to “muddle through” policy making decisions, honing and (hopefully) improving policy over time.

However, there are some policy matters where tinkering around the edges or “finding the middle ground” simply will not do. Climate change is perhaps the most obvious and most pressing of these. There is a strong scientific consensus, backed by the United Nations IPCC report, that in order to avoid reaching the point where climate change becomes self-reinforcing, the global community must become carbon neutral by the year 2050. This is only twenty-eight years away.

To the extent that the world’s governments and the individuals that they represent ignore these warnings, we are gambling with the fate of the whole of humanity. The idea that we can be protected from the worst consequences of climate change by making only incremental adjustments does not fit with intellectually honest political discourse.

Of course, there is still plenty of room for debate regarding the best course of action to address climate change. It is entirely reasonable to debate if the bulk of the responsibility for addressing climate change falls on nations that have emitted larger total sums of greenhouse gases over time but have already begun to reduce their harmful emissions, or if it lies with nations that are currently the world’s chief greenhouse gas emitters. In either case, it is appropriate to shame Russia and China for failing to attend the COP26 climate conference, and it is reasonable to question the follow-through of leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he pledges that India will be carbon neutral by 2070 despite currently working to expanding coal mining operations.

More than that, it can be wise to weigh the virtues of a carbon tax against those of a cap and trade system in our own country. Local decision makers will know far better than distant bureaucrats if subsidies for solar panels or a heightened focus on local agriculture suits your local community’s needs better.

These questions, however, ask which actions and policies are best suited to address climate change- they are elevated beyond the basic question of whether or not drastic action is necessary in the first place.

This is what separates climate change from the other important issues in American life. A failure to address growing inflation is bad, while a failure to appropriately address climate represents a potentially existential threat. More than that, the action that appears necessary to avert the worst of the harm done by climate change remains fully outside of the Overton Window. Forget actually curbing emissions, the United States gives something to the effect of $14.5 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to oil and gas companies- those subsidies outnumber investments in the renewable sector by 7 to 1.

Democrats and Republicans alike need to make dramatic progress in their willingness to take on climate change if they are serious about the current administration’s stated goal of achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2030. Additionally, American political discourse needs to commit itself to curbing climate change regardless of other important policy making, and regardless of our confidence in the follow through of other nations that are sometimes untrustworthy. Without the United States on board, there is little hope for avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This is true for the United States even as it is true for Russia, India, and China- however, a failure by any of those nations to fulfill their responsibility does not excuse failure by the United States.

The time is now for us to fully shift the conversation from “do we need to address climate change” or “under what conditions should we make a full commitment to addressing climate change” to “what is the most effective way to address climate change”. Despite this somewhat liberal sounding call to action, this sentiment finds roots on both sides of the aisle. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “the [global warming] debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat, and we know the time for action is now.”

The time for action is now.

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association