From a whimper to a bang, climate change is back on the agenda. President Obama must play the jobs card if he wants to win this time around.
After four years on the legislative backburner, President Obama has decisively declared his intent to tackle climate change in his second term. In a somewhat combative move during last month’s State of the Union, Obama vowed to bypass Congress if it could not “get together” to pass a market-based solution to climate change. While the President may well carry out his threat, there is real doubt that executive action alone can achieve a meaningful reduction in pollution. Piecemeal measures—such as reforming EPA regulations on carbon emissions and enacting new standards for existing power plants—may represent the full extent of what Obama can do without Congress. Even these steps, however, will likely require Congressional funding.
Unsurprisingly, Obama’s urgent call to action did little to rouse Republican support. In his response to the State of the Union, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) argued that enacting “job-killing laws” would not change the weather. In a later interview on Fox News, Rubio reiterated that climate legislation would “destroy the economy.” This is not new for the Republican Party, whose rhetoric against any form of climate action has centered on the specter of widespread job loss.
Yet, references to future green jobs notwithstanding, the White House has offered no convincing counterarguments to claims that climate policy will kill jobs. Instead, this administration has allowed the debate to be characterized as a choice between the environment and jobs, leaving climate policy extremely vulnerable to attacks from the right. This makes politicians of all stripes jittery, particularly against today’s backdrop of economic malaise.
What this strategy ignores is perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of immediate climate action: the jobs being lost today as a result of the world’s changing weather patterns. There is mounting evidence that whole industries in the US are under threat as the climate becomes more extreme and less predictable. If climate change legislation is to succeed in the current political landscape, the President will need to reframe the debate around the jobs already lost, or severely at risk, because of the impact of climate change today.
Unfortunately, examples abound.
According to the New York State Labor Department, Hurricane Sandy destroyed nearly 30,000 jobs in and around New York City. Ocean acidification—caused by increased atmospheric carbon—is seriously threatening commercial fishing along the US coastline. Oyster harvests in the US Pacific Northwest—worth over $110 million annually—have rapidly declined over the last five years, with thousands of jobs on the line.
Meanwhile, the unprecedented drought that swept through the US last year is set to continue in 2013. According to the US Drought Monitor, more than half of the country remains in moderate to exceptional drought, putting key commodities like corn and wheat at risk. The drought has taken an immense toll on jobs and livelihoods in small towns across the US. Take the recent closing of a beef processing plant in Plainview, Texas, which cost the town 2,300 jobs it could ill afford to lose. The US Department of Agriculture predicts food prices will rise up to four percent this year, though some analysts predict it will be much higher. The drought is estimated to have cost taxpayers over $11 billion in farm insurance payouts alone.
Nor are many of the supposed windfalls of changed weather patterns likely to come to fruition. A recent report by the Economist found that the rapidly melting Arctic Pole is not likely to result in the fishing bonanza anticipated by some. Instead, warmer waters are expected to decrease the overall productivity of fishing in the region, which accounts for about one-fifth of the world’s catch.
The Republican response to legislative action on climate change is well known. But claims that climate change is unrelated to extreme weather events are increasingly refuted by scientists. A draft report by the Federal Advisory Committee on climate, released for comment earlier this year, conclusively linked climate change to extreme weather events. The third National Climate Assessment, co-authored by more than 240 experts, found that changes in climate over the last 50 years is ‘primarily due to human activities’ and is ‘accompanied by trends in extremes of heat, cold, drought, and heavy precipitation events.’
Another common retort is that climate action today will reap no reward for generations into the future. While this was once thought to be true, evidence is emerging that reductions in emissions today can result in quantifiable benefits in the short term. A remarkable simulation conducted by Stanford University in 2010 found that reductions in emissions from worldwide commercial aircraft could perceptibly slow the rate of Arctic ice melt and reduce global surface temperatures in just 20 years.
A 2012 Working Paper released by the European Commission estimated that a shift from 20% greenhouse gas emissions reductions to 30% alone would generate up to 7.9 billion Euros per year in health benefits for each member state. The study found that better air quality, due to lower emissions, would result in an almost immediate and significant improvement in respiratory health and mortality rates.
This is not to say that climate change legislation will have no economic costs; it undoubtedly will. But, to date, the political debate has almost exclusively focused on jobs that could be lost if emissions are reduced. While this is an important consideration, the story is absurdly one-sided if the jobs and industries already at risk as a result of climate change are not accounted for. Time and time again, climate change legislation is substantially watered down, or defeated, on the grounds that it will kill jobs. But this is at the expense of multi-billion dollar industries, which employ millions of Americans and are heavily reliant on a stable and moderate climate.
Placing an additional financial burden on businesses and households is a tough sell. Some job loss is inevitable. By raising the prospect of mass job loss, opponents of climate policy are simply tapping into the very real concerns of ordinary Americans. Though green industries may eventually be massive employers, they are, as of yet, too distant to provide impetus for immediate action. The most compelling argument has to be about the jobs already being lost to storms, droughts, poor harvests, and floods; the rising and quantifiable human costs we incur as we fail to act year after year.
President Obama would do well to tell this side of the story.