Wednesday, May 6, 2009

New Attention on the Environment - But at What Cost?

Don't let the title of this post fool you; there is no new global focus on environmental issues. No, the new interest in the environment is now my own - as you'll note by the new "Environmental Blogs" section on the right side of this page.

Historically, my interest in politics has been much more focused on the campaigns and the backroom deals and the impact of the good-old-boys system of doing things. The environment was never one of those sexy topics that drew my attention, despite all of the interest brought to the topic in recent years by such folks as Al Gore and his "Inconvenient" book and documentary and lecture series. With the new political makeup in Washington, however, and the push for the new Waxman-Markey climate bill - which will have an impact on me both at my job and in my home - I decided that perhaps the time for increasing my knowledge on environmental issues was starting to pass me by.

Putting away the competing opinions and the disparate research and all of the opposing views on whether global warming is real and whether we are to blame or not for the current state of the environment, I do agree that it is our duty to protect the planet. However, Waxman-Markey is far too ambitious a plan to try with the economy in its current state. It's taken decades to get to this point, and while I can understand the idea of striking while the iron is hot I think that a 648-page bill to address everything all at once is the wrong approach - particularly when the bill isn't even complete, no one can agree on what it should include, and the financial impact on consumers and businesses could be disastrous.

Problem number 1: the cost to families. Depending on the extent to which high-emitting companies are subject to either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, their increased costs will most likely be passed on to consumers. Power company X, for instance, pays a $15 tax for every ton of emissions; the increased costs are passed on to each of us in our monthly power bills. This won't even just apply to power companies; concrete manufacturers, as another example, will also incur increased manufacturing costs as a result of environmental fees, driving up the cost of those products to anyone looking to do construction and utilize their products. Where will the additional money that we need come from?

Problem number 2: additional cost to business. Aside from the potential for increased costs passed on to their consumers, businesses will also be forced with some difficult operational decisions. The amount of money they will be required to spend in taxes, the purchase of emission allowance certificates, and emissions monitoring equipment will have to come from somewhere - and after passing on the costs to others, the next place to look will be inward: employee salaries and benefits. How many jobs will the current bill end up costing? Some estimates indicate numbers as high as 2.5 million new unemployed by 2015.

I certainly believe that there are changes we can all make - simple things like keeping power usage to a minimum, replacing light bulbs with new eco-friendly brands, and any number of other things that are recommend to reduce our carbon footprints. I also believe that we should be looking for alternative sources of energy; wind is already used in certain areas, hydroelectric power is in use, and even nuclear power remains an option. Getting off foreign oil should be a priority - not a campaign promise; even the new President has echoed that argument in recent weeks, but I have a feeling that he - like all of his predecessor - will not necessarily rush to do so.

But is this legislative gamble worth it to make up for the decades of talk that we've heard but action that we haven't seen? Are the jobs and costs to American families worth having Congress push through a bill that at this point isn't even complete? I've read the bill, and I can't begin to tell you the number of places that are incomplete - places that essentially read "fill in later." In the past few days alone, Chairman Waxman has indicated that he will consider bypassing subcomittee markup and moving straight to full committee - and thus bypass all of those from both sides of the aisle, representing a diverse set of constituencies, who have great concerns about where the bill is headed and the impact it will have.

Again, we need to be concerned, but we need to be prudent and make sure that what we do to save the environment doesn't destroy the economy.

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