Advice on climate policy for the 2020 presidential candidates – Henry Jacoby, Richard Richels, and Gary Yohe

Henry D. Jacoby, Professor Emeritus, MIT Sloan School of Management

Gary Yohe, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Wesleyan University

Richard Richels, directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute.

From The Hill

The Paris Agreement, with its goal of halting global warming short of 2 degree Celsius, conjures up an image of a temperature threshold which we dare not exceed, akin to Thelma and Louise knowingly and recklessly driving over a cliff to their ruin.

For that hapless couple, there may have been a sudden abyss that they chose to breach. But in the case of global warming, a better metaphor might be that of the can that gets kicked down a road that becomes increasingly treacherous with every mile travelled. Due to our past reluctance to apply the brakes, the can is now farther down the road, and it is going faster than we realize.

The science is clear. When we include the pent-up momentum of the climate system, we have already committed to warming of at least 1.5 degree C. Moreover, with the additional heating that will occur as we reduce emissions to zero, a 2-degree limit is also in doubt.

Have no illusions. The case for coordinated action both nationally and internationally is compelling, even if the articulated temperature targets turn out to be only aspirational. The intensity of the wildfires in the West, the unrelenting flooding in the midsection of the country and the fury of hurricanes striking our coastlines are but a preview of what’s to come—just like the recognition of increases in the frequency of heatwaves and the severity of droughts.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the absurdity of inaction in the face of these risks. Continuing to kick the can down the road will place an intolerable burden on future generations.

But all the news is not bad. Recent polls suggest that we may be entering a new era of public concern over climate change. The number of Americans witnessing the growing destruction has risen. Many see it out of their kitchen windows; all observe it on the evening news.

Moreover, many state and local governments, corporations and individuals are joining the worldwide effort to halt carbon pollution. Although no substitute for U.S. leadership at the national level, these efforts may at least keep our metaphorical can in sight.

It is at the national level where action is most conspicuously absent. Bipartisan congressional support still will be essential even with a more sympathetic president. The question is how to obtain it. Perhaps, once the public becomes convinced that the unprecedented damages being observed are a preview of worse to come, they will demand action. And if the politicians believe they will be held accountable, they will respond. But while waiting for this scenario to play itself out, valuable time will be lost, and the planet will continue to warm.

Read the full post at The Hill.

Henry D. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. 

Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).

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