Catch 22: Regulating Climate Change During a Recession

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In 2007, in the decision of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the court ordered the agency to determine whether heat-trapping gasses harmed the environment and/or public health. The agency’s findings were unanimous in determining that heat-trapping gases caused incredible harm to both the environment and to public health.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration suppressed the work of the EPA and took no action to remedy the findings. President Barack Obama, in his first days in office, promised to examine the case and act accordingly if the findings were justified. After four months in office, he came through on his promise. On April 17, the EPA declared that carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gases to be pollutants that endanger public health and welfare. However, now it may be too late to act.

The findings of the EPA will set in motion a process that will regulate the use of fossil fuels as well as carbon emissions for the first time in the United States. These regulations would eventually result in the U.S. becoming one of the foremost leaders in regulating carbon emissions and other pollutants. Energy companies will be forced to invest in alternative forms of energy besides crude oil. There will be an incredible push in the U.S. for cleaner energy. Sounds great, right? Wrong.

The process of transitioning to cleaner energy will be expensive —too expensive for our current economic situation. Had President George Bush not suppressed the EPA’s findings and regulated carbon emissions appropriately back in 2007, the U.S. would have been able to make the necessary strides toward cleaner energy. In fact, had the U.S. acted earlier, the new market of cleaner energy would have been developed enough to help the economy. New jobs would be created, businesses would transition to cleaner energy alternatives and the massive amounts of money invested in cleaner energy would have helped stimulate the economy. Unfortunately, one could argue it is too late to develop a market for cleaner energy.

Regulating carbon emissions or transitioning into a market of cleaner energy, without question, means higher energy bills for tax payers. The regulation would call for heavier taxes not only on the American public but also on corporations as well. At the same time, a transition to cleaner energy will actually kill jobs invested in the fossil fuel market. Environmentalists and Democrats have argued to the contrary and stated that this new market of cleaner energy has potential to, in fact, create new jobs — and they are correct. However, in order for these new jobs to be created, an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars are needed to fund this new market. With the daunting economic collapse, raised income taxes and loss of jobs, Americans do not need – and cannot handle – another economic strain.

That being said, the U.S. still has a very real problem on its hands: the incredible reliance it has on fossil fuels. Our use of fossil fuels is harmful to the environment and public health. Furthermore, the U.S. has been subject to relentless international criticisms for trailing behind other modernized nations in regulating carbon emissions. For instance, the U.S. has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

Even more disturbing, eventually the bad environment will hurt the economy as well; in simple terms, the damaged environment will eventually have a detrimental effect on many other resources in this world, including fossil fuels. For example, it is estimated that the fishing market will go dry in 2050 due to global warming. No matter how you look at it, from a social, political or economic standpoint, we need to begin to do something to solve this crisis.

The solution: a gradual process to regulate carbon emissions. State legislatures should begin regulating carbon emissions and begin gradually transitioning to cleaner energy. States such as California need to hold back on heavy regulations until its economy gets back on track. By no means does this imply California or other economically weak states should be exempted from making the transition toward cleaner air. However, for these states, now is probably not the best time to regulate.

It is a tough balancing act for the Obama administration. On one hand, it cannot afford to do the best thing for the environment by immediately regulating carbon emissions and transitioning to cleaner energy, simply because our economic crisis will not allow it. On the other hand, it cannot afford to sit back and allow the U.S. to continue to damage the environment unregulated. The Obama administration needs to regulate carbon emissions to the extent that the American public can handle the economic strain it brings. Unfortunately for the U.S., and the environment, that won’t be much.

Neil Thakor is a first-year political science major. He can be reached at nthakore@uci.edu.

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