For Climate Change Solution, Look to Yesterday's GOP

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2009 file photo, steam and smoke rises from a coal power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Europe's
FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2009 file photo, steam and smoke rises from a coal power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Europe's main weapon in the battle against climate change is now fighting for its own survival. In early January, investors in the continent's cap-and-trade system still had to pay some euro14 ($18.30) for the right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide into the air. By last week, the price of one emission allowance had tumbled to a meager euro6.41, making it much cheaper to pollute and slashing the financial incentives for companies to invest in low-carbon technologies. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

If you don't believe that human actions are leading to a warming planet, nothing will convince you that carbon controls are useful -- if it ain't broke, as they say, why pay to fix it?

But for the rest of us who know that there is near unanimity among climate scientists that temperatures are rising and humans are the cause, the choice isn't whether to act but how to most efficiently lower our pollution.

To find the best solution, we recommend turning to what might seem an unlikely source: the Republican Party.

In the 1980s the GOP lead the charge in favor of the idea of using markets to control pollution. Moderate Republicans (of which there were a significant number) opted for dealing with environmental problems with economic tools that employ price signals to keep air and water clean. These kinds of policies cost the least and give businesses the most flexibility to get the job done in any way they prefer.

If lawmakers can resist loading bills down with allowances, loopholes, and giveaways, these are the simplest of all approaches: determine the problem pollutant, charge companies that produce it. If they want to pollute, they have to pay.

It's a smart, economically efficient strategy that many on the left railed against for years.
Under President George H.W. Bush, a Democratic Congress reached a compromise to deal with acid rain using cap-and-trade. The program cut the pollution at relatively low costs, making air quality safer for the public. This program's effectiveness changed minds among Democratic legislators.

But today's Republicans have dismissed their forebears' good ideas. Seemingly unable to get a grip on the most conservative wing of their party, many in the GOP won't even acknowledge carbon pollution as a problem let alone suggest a solution -- even an economically justified one like their predecessors might have.

Recently, a carbon fee was proposed by two Democratic congressmen. As far as economics go, when you want to fix a market distortion, this is as clean as it gets. No funky kick-backs; no horse-trading; just a straightforward financial incentive to correct a failure in the marketplace.

Just as there is near universal support among climate scientists that we need to address the problem, there is extremely broad consensus among economists that a price mechanism like the one proposed in this bill is the least expensive way to cut emissions.

But Republicans in the House quickly offered a resolution in opposition, claiming that a carbon pollution fee would wreak havoc on the American economy. The truth is a carbon fee would bring benefits far in excess of costs. Failing to move forward with this bill, or something similar, represents the real economic threat.

The only scenario in which a cheap, effective carbon pollution policy is not worth doing is the one where those emissions were not affecting our climate and would not lead to adverse consequences -- in other words, a scenario that, according to scientists, does not match up with reality.

But that is the world some lawmakers appear to have conjured up in their minds. Texas Congressman, Joe Barton, one of the lead sponsors of the anti-carbon fee resolution often makes climate change denial comments like this one, which he made to The Dallas Morning News earlier this year: "I'm not going to bet the U.S. economy or the Texas economy on a theory that is not proven. Climate has always been changing."

The Gordian Knot of climate inaction starts getting tangled here. If there is no way to convince lawmakers that man-made carbon emissions are a problem, the question of how best to address it is moot.

But if ever the conversation can move beyond this point, a carbon fee or other form of simple, efficient market mechanism is clearly the best economic choice.