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May 4, 2009

Climate Change Denial Leads to Higher Prevention Costs


For the last 15 years, one of the primary arguments against taking action on climate change has been predicated on the idea that the scientists are not united in consensus. Although the debate today is largely over, its legacy remains.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, looking at two “hot button” issues – climate change and health care reform – concluded that health care reform had a better chance of moving through the Senate than climate change. According to The Hill, a Washington insider publication, Reid lacks critical support from Midwestern senators whose states today rely heavily on coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive energy feedstock.


Opposition today is not about global warming, however, but on the belief that the cure would be prohibitively expensive to a region already in dire economic straits. Chrysler’s Chapter 11 announcement this last week put an exclamation point on this.


At the same time, however, the same companies that today hold the economic health of the Midwest helped to confuse the global warming debate. Detroit’s Big Three lobbied Congress ferociously and pushed the idea of scientific uncertainty to help fight off attempts to increase fuel economy standards.


Last week, the tired old idea that no consensus exists on global warming was again punctured. The New York Times’ Andy Revkin reported on a document from the 1990s in which industry scientists said that there was no denying that human activity was releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which in turn was having an impact on the Earth’s climate. Part of the report, removed at the time, also said there was only weak support for the various alternative explanations, like that solar activity was really driving climate change. These documents do two things: They refute the idea that there has not been scientific consensus on the issue of climate change and they undermine the dizzying array of explanations thrown out today by skeptics as to why the planet has shown an upward trend in global mean temperature.


Ironically, the memos were released thanks to a 2007 lawsuit filed against California and Vermont by the nation’s automakers, which were again fighting off attempts to limit carbon emissions from Detroit’s products. This fight against efficiency, in turn, helped the Big Three fall behind foreign-based automakers in terms of manufacturing technology and fuel efficient vehicles. For Chrysler, modernization ultimately required a marriage with Italian automaker Fiat, an arrangement given the blessing of the Obama Administration but far from certain to be a success.


This was a symptom of the insular good old boy network within the Big Three that always assumed that what was good for GM was good for the country. It cost the car companies dearly, and has ruined communities across the country with more pain coming.


It has also left the United States and the industrialized Midwest with an extremely thorny problem. There is no cheaper cure than early prevention, which means the causes of climate change were cheaper and easier to correct back when the auto and fossil fuel industries were working assiduously to sow doubt. Today, those costs are higher than they were. Tomorrow, they will be higher. This is coupled by the general state of the economy today versus 10 years ago. Today, the Midwest is floundering. A decade ago, everyone had so much money there were two SUVs in every driveway.


Thus the same insular nature that helped drive the nation’s automakers to the brink of Chapter 11 – and in Chrysler’s case, over it – has left its home region in the Midwest with something of a poison pill. It can either accept higher energy costs now to address climate change, or it can hold off in hopes of economic recovery and pay even higher costs.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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