The effects of climate change are coming harder and faster, according to a recent report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, a child born today — if greenhouse gas emissions aren't cut nearly in half before she's a teen — will live in a world on track to irreversible damage. That catastrophe would begin just as that same child is graduating from college in 2040, far sooner than previously expected, and at a lower increase in global temperature than earlier thought. Stalling is no longer a viable strategy.
The report's authors say if greenhouse gases continue to pollute at the rate they do now, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels in a generation. That would swamp coastlines, ruin crops, worsen droughts and increase the severity of hurricanes and wildfires. The report shows two things should happen: Renewable sources of energy would have to provide up to two-thirds of the world's electricity, and coal would have to fade from roughly 40 percent today to almost nothing by 2050. "There is no way to mitigate climate change without getting rid of coal," said Drew Shindell, an author of the report and a climate scientist at Duke University. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump mocks climate change — and as recently as his 60 Minutes interview this month, said he doubts people cause it — while planning to expand the use of coal and withdrawing from the Paris climate accords.
While combatting climate change requires global leadership, local leaders are doing what they can in its absence. Two dozen local governments, stretching from Citrus to Manatee counties, have formed the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, to plan for and fight climate change. This is wise, as a 2014 federal report said Tampa Bay is one of the areas of Florida most vulnerable to rising seas. Officials will deal with real-world implications of changing climate and rising water. For example, how high must a bridge be built to be usable in 70 years? Should it be built at all? Where can seawalls stem the tide of rising water?
As laudable as these local goals are, the best solution is to stop climate change before it's too late rather than simply reacting to its effects. The winners of this year's Nobel Prize in economics have worked on the answer. William Nordhaus of Yale has been called "the father of climate-change economics," and his solution is a universal tax on carbon. His research established a range of potential amounts. Such a tax would provide a marketplace incentive to cut pollution and stimulate innovation without a heavy hand from government. It also recognizes that pollution has a cost, and that the polluter should bear it.
The Nobel co-winner, Paul Romer of New York University, has done research showing how governments can foster innovation. "Many people think that dealing with protecting the environment will be so costly and so hard that they just want to ignore the problem," he said. "They want to deny it exists; they can't deal with it."
He is exactly right that it is time for governments at every level to step up. Solving the problem won't be cheap or easy, but it is possible. That child born today shouldn't be handed a past-due bill when she reaches adulthood. The price will only get higher the longer officials wait to act. Start paying now, or be prepared to pay a crushing price later.