Washington Post calls for aggressive, US-led international climate action

A series of editorials endorses emissions caps with permit sales and citizen rebates.

“The national debate on climate change has devolved,” declared the Washington Post’s editors to begin the first of five late-August editorials collectively called “A climate for change.” Nevertheless, they concluded in that first piece, action “of some kind, at some point, is inevitable. Our proposition is that it should come sooner rather than later and be smart rather than clumsy.”

Until 2008, the editors recalled, “serious action” on greenhouse gases “seemed inevitable” in the US. Then unwillingness grew, not just among Republicans but also among Democrats fearing political consequences. The need for action, however, remains urgent, and “a solid majority of Americans” favors it. Repeating the message from an early-August editorial, the editors declared the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules a “decent” but “cumbersome and expensive” first step.

“All this explains why,” they wrote, “understandable frustrations notwithstanding, the shape of the climate debate now and through the 2016 election is important.” They summarized what they planned to say about it: “We will review the need to act; defend the EPA’s efforts but explain why they are not ideal; highlight several strategies that would work better; and show why it makes sense for the United States to take steps even though other nations have yet to do enough on climate change.”

The second editorial relied on the rhetorical appeal to authority, citing experts to reiterate that human-caused warming is real. The editors acknowledged the uncertainty that “reasonable climate skeptics” point to in projections of warming’s extent and consequences, but declared it no “excuse for inaction.” That piece ended, “Businesses that do not hedge against the threat of uncertain outcomes fail. The world cannot afford such recklessness on climate change.”

The third looked more closely at President Obama's EPA initiatives and ended with this observation:

The EPA is starting the country down a carbon-reduction path, an important signal to Americans and foreigners seeking confidence that the United States will cut its carbon use. But the regulations’ greatest contribution will come if they prod Congress to enact a plan that’s both more comprehensive and more efficient. In our next editorial, we will discuss how Congress could do better, if and when lawmakers wake up.

That next editorial called on legislators to wake up to the ideas of Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat whose plan the editors see as a “solution conservatives could accept” despite “inevitable complications.” They explained:

Republicans have largely ceded the free-market arena to Democrats such as Mr. Van Hollen. His proposal would put a limit on the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, a cap that would decline each year. Beneath that cap, companies would have to buy permits for the emissions their fuels produce. The buying and selling of permits would set a market price for carbon dioxide. The government would rebate all of the revenue from selling permits back to anyone with a Social Security number, more than offsetting any rise in consumer prices for 80 percent of Americans. Most upper-income people, who use more energy, and government, which would get no rebate, would pay more under the plan.

But isn’t any such plan pointless if the rest of the world, notably China, fails to reduce greenhouse gas production? Not if the US leads, the editors asserted in the series’ fifth and final editorial. China’s rulers, they pointed out, are “investing in nuclear power, experimenting with carbon pricing and emphasizing environmental considerations with increasing urgency.” Moreover, those rulers have “little choice,” since “air quality in the north has become a noxious social problem, and China faces a variety of climate risks.”

That editorial ended the series with this:

The world will not give up fossil fuels tomorrow—or many years from tomorrow. The transition scientists recommend will be slow, and the world may have to adapt to risks it did not have enough sense to avoid. But pointing out the difficulty of the problem is not a strategy. It is an excuse to shrink from one of history’s greatest challenges.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.


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Scitation: Washington Post calls for aggressive, US-led international climate action