Let's have real debate, rather than false choice, on climate change options

Barry Davis
FILE - A pump jack extracts crude oil at an oil field near wind turbines in Emlichheim, Germany, March 18, 2022. Most major countries are finding it easier to promise to fight climate change than actually do it. Experts tracking action to reduce carbon emissions say of the major economies only the European Union is close to doing what's necessary to limit global warming to a few more tenths of a degree. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

The York Dispatch's July 21 editorial “Climate Change is an emergency, regardless of whether you believe it” argues for the appropriateness of a presidential climate emergency declaration and asks readers to consider “how many people do we want to kill through inaction?”

This reader asks The York Dispatch editorial board to consider how reasonable people — who are receptive to the scientific consensus regarding climate change — can be justifiably skeptical of an emergency declaration or domestic policy proposals that are presented and positioned as combatting climate change.

As the declaration of a climate emergency could potentially divert funds from the defense budget, disrupt petroleum exports and/or imports, affect supply through drilling restrictions, and direct investments to U.S. initiatives designed to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S., it’s reasonable to consider how and to what extent reductions in U.S. carbon emissions reductions would affect climate change.

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Proponents of domestic action on climate change legislation routinely invoke localized heat waves, rising sea levels, wildfires, and droughts to justify the imperative to “take action.” However, there is rarely, if ever, a corresponding description of how and to what extent the proposed measures will affect the local heat waves, sea levels, wildfires, etc. that are so commonly invoked. There is always data, (such as the quantified polar ice reduction, rising sea levels, and even excess death projections in the aforementioned Dispatch editorial), but there is rarely context.

So here is some critical context: The U.S. represents roughly 13% of global emissions (as of 2021). Can an incremental reduction to 13% of global emissions materially affect the rising sea levels, heat waves, etc. commonly invoked to justify an emergency declaration or domestic legislation? If so, this would contradict the reality that climate and climate change are definitively global. If not, then efforts to link U.S. action on climate change with the outcome of ameliorating local severe weather conditions are misleading and inaccurate. In the absence of a legally binding framework to enforce emissions targets, U.S. climate action is routinely presented and promoted in a manner that ascribes global impact to domestic legislation and ignores the interdependence of our domestic emissions reduction initiatives.

There is general agreement that combatting anthropogenic climate change will require a net reduction in global emissions. What is the likelihood that an emergency declaration or other U.S. legislative actions will achieve a net reduction? We don’t yet know the proposed emissions reduction target of a potential climate emergency declaration, but we do know the previously proposed Build Back Better legislation aimed to “cut greenhouse gas pollution by well over one gigaton (1 billion tons) in 2030,” according to the White House press release. Now consider the global context: China and India recently confirmed plans to increase coal production by a combined 700 million tons by the end of next year. When burned, this coal will produce an additional 1.4 gigatons (1.4 billion tons) of carbon emissions, which is roughly equivalent to the aggregate reduction in emissions in the U.S. between 2005 and 2020.

If we are to “follow the science,” we should also follow the data: China and India represent a combined 38% of global carbon dioxide emissions with an annual emissions growth rate of 1.8% and 4.0% respectively. What effect will the emergency declaration and/or legislation from a country representing a 13% (and shrinking) share of global emissions have on local heat waves, rising sea levels, etc. if the declaration and/or legislation is more than offset by planned increases from two countries representing a combined 38% (and growing) share of global carbon dioxide emissions? If the objective is to reduce the water level in a swimming pool, can this be achieved by draining some water from a small section of the pool while adding more water to a larger section of the pool?

If domestic climate action does not, in itself, produce a net reduction in global emissions or have substantive effect on the heat waves, rising sea levels, etc. that are invoked to justify it, then rational, reasonable citizens have an obligation to challenge policymakers and pundits to put aside the local weather event headline hyperbole. Instead, we should collectively examine hard data to inform cost-benefit considerations, as would be expected for any other domestic legislation.

If proponents of domestic climate action believe the overriding objective is to inspire other countries to pursue their own emissions reductions, (as opposed to materially affecting global emissions or impact of climate change), then this is an argument for a largely performative measure. That may be a sound and convincing argument, but in any case, we should have the policy debate — and avoid framing climate change considerations as a false choice between “doing something” to combat climate change or denying climate change.