Tim Harper wonders whether extreme weather and U.S. policy could put pressure on the Harper government to change its approach to environmental policy. The Washington Post’s editorial board notes that 2012 was the warmest on record in the United States and makes a suggestion.
Scientists can’t yet know to what extent man-made emissions influenced the heat and calamitous drought. But the result is nevertheless ominous, “a huge exclamation point on the end of several decades of fairly consistent warming,” as NOAA’s Deke Arndt put it. The year offers a vision of what will happen more often on a planet that is heating — slowly and fitfully, not every year warmer than the last, but inexorably.
There is still uncertainty. Though they have a range of estimates, scientists still do not know exactly how sensitive the global climate system is to human carbon emissions and exactly how steep the long-term temperature line will be. Predicting the consequences of a given temperature rise is also difficult. That’s an argument not for doing nothing but for managing the risks, spending now to avoid the likelihood of much greater costs later, as any good business would do in the face of certain threats of uncertain magnitude.
The smartest hedge would be a national carbon tax. It would marshal the market’s power to wring carbon out of the economy, putting decisions about the direction of energy and manufacturing in the hands of consumers and businesses that meet their demands, not Congress and interest groups that lobby lawmakers. When people must pay something for their pollution, they pollute less and invest in cleaner alternatives. A carbon tax would provide more certainty to industry and investors who currently can only guess at what climate policy will look like year to year.