Opinion

Waiting on Warming

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It's never good to ignore credible warnings, even if the consequences aren't immediately visible. This is true whether you're dealing with termites or terrorists, car maintenance or cardiac health.

Or global warming--especially on Earth Day today. 

According to mainstream scientific opinion, global warming poses a credible threat to the United States. 

We know that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere, trapping more of the sun's energy, largely because of the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities. 

We know that as the average global temperature rises, the volume of the ocean's water expands, pushing up the sea level and threatening homes, businesses and infrastructure along the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean, not to mention wetlands and other coastal ecosystems. 

We know that with the average global temperature increasing with a speed unprecedented in human history, other major changes are likely: more deadly heat stress in U.S. cities, droughts in some areas, floods in others, less snowpack in the arid West, the possibility of more intense hurricanes in the East, the destruction of ecosystems and endangered species too fragile to adapt, and perhaps even the collapse of the Gulf Stream, wreaking havoc on the climate of Europe. 

Changes we see today, such as the bleaching of already stressed coral reefs and the retreat of glaciers, are probably due in part to climate change. 

We cannot accurately predict the impact of global warming to the Chesapeake Bay in 2030. But we should not be fooled for lack of a crystal ball into thinking the threat isn't real. 

The good news is that the worst effects might be avoided if we act now. 

More good news is that American ingenuity has a great record of meeting technological challenges. It will take a new industrial revolution to provide for economic growth without emitting greenhouse gases, but there is every reason to believe we can do it while continuing to grow our economy. Moreover, doing so will help us meet other national objectives, such as reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. 

That's why a bipartisan group in the U.S. House, including Maryland Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, recently introduced the Climate Stewardship Act, a companion to a Senate bill written by Joseph I. Lieberman and John McCain. The bill would freeze U.S. greenhouse gas emissions after 2010 at the 2000 level. 

When BP, the oil and energy company, voluntarily pledged to limit its 2010 greenhouse gas emissions to a level 10 percent below its 1990 emissions, it established an internal emissions market to help meet the target. Each unit within the company was given a number of emissions allowances. If a unit's emissions were less than its allowances, it could sell the surplus. Where emissions exceeded allowances, the unit could buy additional allowances from other parts of the company. Managers were rated on their performance. 

This market sent what economists call a "price signal" throughout the company. Suddenly, company managers and technology experts had a reason to take a second look at their greenhouse gas emissions. BP met its target eight years ahead of schedule, at net savings of about $600 million from more efficient energy use and streamlined production processes. 

The Climate Stewardship Act would send a similar price signal to all large emitters, and do so cost-effectively, thanks to its market-based mechanism. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, the bill would cost the average household less than $20 per year. 

The bill can be passed regardless of whether the United States ratifies the Kyoto Protocol. Adopted in 1997, the treaty sets binding emission targets for developed countries that would reduce their emissions on average 5.2 percent below 1990 levels. The U.S. target was 7 percent below 1990 emission levels by 2012. So far, 122 countries have ratified it. 

Some argue that we should wait for India and China to put limits on their greenhouse gas pollution before we get serious about ours. That argument is weak enough when you consider the modest price tag of the bill. It's weaker still when you recognize that we are already lagging behind in a global technology race, with big implications for U.S. jobs. 

Our dallying over climate policy is ceding to Europe and Japan the lead in climate-friendly technology development; both Europe and Japan have already agreed to emission caps. We should worry less about China and India attracting the polluting technologies of the last century and worry more that we won't be selling them the climate-friendly technologies of the 21st century. 

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It's a jobs issue, an international security issue and an issue important to our children and grandchildren. It's time to take it seriously.