The Challenge of Climate Change

Posted by Brent Sohngen (sohngen.1@osu.edu)

The science of climate change is settled, so the scientists have told us. Recent reports from the United Nations and the U.S. government have told us the human signature is written all over the floods, hurricanes, fires and other devastation we see around us. The future holds even darker realities as global average temperatures continue to rise.

Although the science may be “settled,” what the scientists seem not to understand is the scale of economic and political challenge that confronts us. As they paint ever scarier pictures of the impacts to come, they seem to forget that real efforts to solve the climate problem will have real costs. And those costs will affect lots of people.

We need to look no farther than France to see the effect of even modest costs. There, the government proposed a 25-cents per gallon tax on gasoline to combat climate change and faced four weeks of sometimes deadly protests. This outcome must be incredibly surprising to the political elite who have staked climate goals on the successes of countries in the European Union.

From 1990 to the present, France reduced its carbon-dioxide emissions by 13 percent. Given what they had already accomplished, it did not seem so far-fetched to their government that they could do a bit more. But I guess if you are already paying $7 or $8 per gallon for gasoline, as they do in France, a few more cents actually is important, especially if you are in the middle class and you have to drive to work every day.

As the world has watched events unfold in France in recent weeks, it has become abundantly clear that the pictures of future devastation that scientists have tied to today’s weather calamities are no match for the economic displacement of most proposed climate policies. While the science is becoming clearer by the day, the policy is still just as muddled as ever.

Consider this: Ohio’s carbon-dioxide emissions are down about 22 percent since their peak in 2005. Most of this reduction has occurred as we have shifted electricity production from coal to natural gas and renewables due to our past alternative-energy standards and federal subsidies.

We also are consuming less energy because of energy-conservation efforts and less driving. But if we want to meet the United Nations goals for avoiding catastrophic climate change, we need to reduce emissions by 60 percent by 2030 and by 100 percent by 2060. This means we have to switch all of our electricity needs to solar, wind and geothermal and we have to transition all of our vehicles to electricity by 2060.

We have no blueprint for doing this, and we especially have no blueprint for doing this cheaply. The United Nations suggests that the costs could lead to carbon prices above $5,000 per ton by 2050, or $45 per gallon of gasoline. If we all end up driving electric cars in the next decade or so, of course, high gasoline taxes are irrelevant. But how do we make sure that happens?

Unfortunately, the problem of climate change has nothing to do with debates about whether climate change is real. If it was that simple, we’d have the problem solved by now. No, the real problem is figuring out how to manage this enormous global transition away from fossil fuels. We all probably agree that technology has changed amazingly rapidly, pushing us toward LEDs, battery-powered lawnmowers and better automobile fuel efficiency. But emissions are still increasing globally, not decreasing.

The only way to make the transition happen faster is to adopt aggressive new policies that force us to change, and these will be costly. Ohio’s alternative-energy standards have reduced our emissions by 2 to 3 percent and have had minimal impacts on electricity prices, but the legislature still wants to get rid of them. How in the world are we ever going to solve the climate problem if we won’t tax ourselves to do it? Until the scientists figure out how to solve that problem, all the scary pictures of future devastation in the world will do nothing.

Appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, December 13, 2018

https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20181213/column-addressing-global-climate-change-carries-challenging-price-tag

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