Gazette opinion: Tough time to make case for climate change policy

2011-06-03T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Tough time to make case for climate change policy The Billings Gazette
June 03, 2011 12:00 am

They seem like an odd pair to be arguing for action to address climate change: Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist who has led the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, worked for two Republican presidents and another GOP presidential nominee, and Wegger Strommen, the U.S. ambassador of Norway, the world’s second-largest gas producing nation and sixth-biggest oil producing nation.

Yet the economist and the ambassador came to Billings this week along with a few scientists to share their perspectives on why U.S. policy must change to address climate change. Undaunted by the prospect of discussing this highly polarizing subject in an oil and gas producing region, Holtz-Eakin and Strommen spoke to local business and community leaders at noon and again at a public forum at Montana State University Billings on Wednesday evening.

Congress has stopped considering legislation intended to reduce carbon emissions, and most Americans are more concerned about $4 gasoline than about melting polar ice. However, as Strommen pointed out, the ice really is melting. Gasoline costs about $12 a gallon in Norway, including a hefty tax instituted in 1991.

“We’re an oil and gas producer,” Strommen told The Gazette editorial board. “We cannot do without our carbon base, but we have come to the conclusion it cannot be the future. We are in the same boat (as the United States), but we are trying to row to a place where we have a sustainable future.

“We live in a part of the world that is changing the most rapidly,” the ambassador said. “The ice is really going away.”

Melting in Oslo

Nordic skiing isn’t a sure bet any more in a Norwegian winter. Oslo hasn’t had enough snow for skiing in some recent winters. Warmer ocean temperatures have caused cod to move toward Russia, while less valuable fish have moved into Norway’s waters. Warmer climate has lengthened the growing season. But gardeners now have to contend with ticks and large slugs  — pests that once were unknown in this country. Rising sea levels are a concern that Strommen takes personally. His house is just 6 feet above the sea level.

The ambassador and Holtz-Eakin are well aware that most Americans don’t share Norwegians’ sense of urgency about climate.

As economic adviser to Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign, Holtz-Eakin had a difficult job of promoting McCain’s support of climate legislation. However, McCain’s position in 2008 wasn’t out of the GOP mainstream then. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman all have a track record supportive of climate policies such as cap and trade, as recently noted by Politico.com. Don’t look for these GOP presidential hopefuls to promote cap and trade legislation in the 2012 campaign.

Holtz-Eakin acknowledged that climate change legislation isn’t going to happen quickly. But he believes action is possible after the 2012 election.

“A case can be made for sensible action as opposed to inaction,” he told the editorial board.

Being dependent on oil and gas exposes American consumers to price shocks, he noted. Our dependency on foreign suppliers creates national security risks and substantial military costs of defending those supplies and delivery routes.

Revenue-neutral plan

Any carbon tax must be revenue-neutral, he said. The money collected from carbon generators would be rebated through other tax reductions for Americans. Instead of having Congress and the White House choose which energy sources to subsidize, a carbon tax would allow consumers to choose.

“There’s no more powerful force for innovation than to put an incentive out there,” Holtz-Eakin said.

The argument for carbon emission reduction won’t fly unless it clearly addresses pressing American concerns. Could it be part of overall tax reform? Could a carefully constructed carbon tax be part of reforms that reduce uncertainty about federal regulations? How should energy policy change to enhance U.S. national security?

These questions should be part of the national discussion during the 2012 presidential race. But as Holtz-Eakin said, action will take more time, probably much more.

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