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Latin doesn't think there's any less hope because Congress hasn't passed cap and trade or a carbon tax that would have simply funneled money into the Treasury or back to the people. He argues in his book that most of the emission reductions already being made or contemplated — under the Kytoto Protocol or in Europe — couldn't possibly avert disaster. It's an imperfect analogy, but Latin basically views human-caused climate change as a freight train barreling down the track. We want to stop that train. Whether we open the throttle wide or open it less doesn't really matter. Either way, that train isn't going to stop.
Latin argues that rather than merely slowing the increase of greenhouse gas emissions, we must do away totally with the main sources of greenhouse gas, such as coal-burning power plants and internal combustion engines. We must replace them with green technologies. And, yes, we must impose heavy carbon taxes — with all revenue earmarked for the development of those technologies. He doesn't think a tax by itself will deter big corporations from continuing to make big profits from business as usual. It will only work if the tax revenue subsidizes change.
"It is not easy to modify the way people think about a problem once they have internalized a mistaken conception widely shared by others in their field," Latin writes in Climate Change Policy Failures. "Climate policymakers need to stop believing that any reduction in business-as-usual [greenhouse gas] emissions will correspondingly reduce climate change risks. They need to stop thinking that if many people reduce their carbon footprints by some extent, those decentralized ... cuts would produce significant progress toward mitigating climate change dangers. ... These leaders also need to stop believing that 'every little bit helps,' and instead they must recognize that more ambitious mitigation efforts with high worldwide costs" — Latin is not among those who envision a change in energy technology without major social dislocation — "will be required to achieve any meaningful climate change progress."
Latin doesn't see the recent spate of bad news about alternative energy companies as a sign that the needed technologies lie far down the road. He thinks that the real barriers are political. "These things are failing not because they don't work," he says. "They're failing because they're not being supported as they need to be supported." Yes, demand is currently disappointing. But that's not the whole story. True, "there's not enough demand for new technologies at impossibly high prices compared to traditional fossil fuel combustion products." But "we're still heavily subsidizing oil and coal."
Take the slow sales of electric cars. Why should anyone buy a car that can't go from Seattle to Portland without recharging, especially since one is hardly sure to find a spot at a recharging station — or even to find a station on the way? At this point, Latin says, "the electric car industry enjoys no economies of scale. The government isn't buying them. It isn't creating recharging stations." Basically, "you're taking a new, developing, frail technology and pitting it against the most established companies in the world. . . . And people talk about 'the free market.' "
"It all comes down to economics and politics," he says. "We're not giving a chance to these better alternative technologies."
The Northwest is at least doing a little to encourage those technologies. Washington law still requires utilities to get at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources other than hydro by 2020. And — except, of course, in transportation — no one suggests burning a lot more fossil fuel. Even in these brave new economic times, regional power planning isn't likely to change much. The Sixth Northwest Power Plan calls for meeting 85 percent of increased power demand by 2020 with greater efficiency, rather than building more generating facilities of any kind. (The Council staff estimated that increasing efficiency that much would create 47,000 new jobs by 2030.) The Council cranks out plans on a five-year cycle; it will start working on a seventh plan next year. Presumably, energy efficiency will still look pretty good. The number may be too low — some people argue that it is — but under federal law, the new plan will price greenhouse gas emissions at $21 a ton.
Nationally, whether you believe Latin or trust the half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none emission reductions that he deplores, this year's political campaigns have offered little encouragement. What about the concrete effort that the federal government has made to date? "I could call it half-assed," Latin says, "but it's more like quarter-assed." The EPA may start to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants, but "that only applies to new coal-burning power plants," Latin says, while older plants remain "the worst soures of GHGs [greenhouse gases] in the world." Stopping coal will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, he says, and understandably, government "agencies do not want to be the fall guys for creating social dislocation. They want Congress to do it."
So does he. "Congress should deal with this the way it dealt with the Marshall Plan, the way it dealt with the space program, the way it dealt with the interstate highway system," Latin says. But he doesn't expect our elected representatives to do much on their own. "If we have to depend on Congress," he says, "I would not, if I were you, buy any real property in the state of Florida."
"I believe we have the technologies," he says. "We just don't have the required political will and insight." What would it take for the body politic to develop that will? Is Hurricane Sandy enough? Some New Yorkers think it should be. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama as the candidate more likely to do something about climate change.
"It is small comfort to sodden and stranded New Yorkers that Hurricane Sandy’s flooding of the city’s infrastructure . . . was predicted in grimly precise detail by scientists in the latest state and city climate studies" The New York Times observed. "Deeper and more frequent flooding from Rockaway to Lower Manhattan and the city’s transit tunnels has been a repeated warning that largely went unnoticed by the public and most politicians. But now, with the floods from Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene last year on his watch, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pointedly stressing what he considers the inevitability of more such disasters. 'Climate change is reality,' the governor said." However, the editorial added, "Mr. Cuomo admits that he does not have all the answers nor enough government money for all the proposed solutions."
"President Obama and Mitt Romney seemed determined not to discuss climate change in this campaign," wrote Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "So thanks to Hurricane Sandy for forcing the issue: Isn’t it time to talk not only about weather, but also about climate?"
Maybe so, but ... the presidential candidates' responses to Sandy did not include ringing calls for a war on climate change. "We probably need a Katrina times five," Latin said shortly before Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, "a natural disaster so striking that people will wake up and say 'we can't continue.' "
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