Disaster Needed for U.S. to Act on Climate Change, Stavins Says

The U.S. probably won’t take significant steps to curb climate change until an environmental disaster sways public view and prompts political action, Robert Stavins of Harvard University said.

“It’s unlikely that the U.S. is going to take serious action on climate change until there are observable, dramatic events, almost catastrophic in nature, that drive public opinion and drive the political process in that direction,” Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said today in an interview in Bloomberg’s Boston office.

President Barack Obama failed to get legislation through Congress that would have established a cap-and-trade system of pollution allowances to control greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming. Instead, the administration is pushing regulations for carbon pollution through the Environmental Protection Agency, a far inferior approach, according to Stavins.

The agency’s rules aimed at curbing emissions from industrial polluters such as power plants aren’t “sensible,” he said. They don’t do much to reduce greenhouse gases and carry an “excessively high cost,” according to Stavins.

Stavins, an economist, is a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said in 2007 that scientists are more than 90 percent certain that humans are causing global warming.

Decline in Polls

U.S. concern about climate change has declined in recent years, according to polls. Americans who agree the Earth is warming because of man-made activity dropped to 34 percent in October, from 50 percent in July 2006, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Almost four dozen lawmakers who have questioned global warming were elected to Congress in November’s midterm elections.

Stalemate on the issue in the U.S. has hindered the Obama administration’s efforts to take the lead in UN talks for a new global treaty to fight climate change. The U.S., the world’s second largest greenhouse-gas emitter behind China, is the only industrialized country not part of the Kyoto Protocol, which limits emissions by developed nations until 2012.

“There’s a legit reason for the public to be skeptical about climate change because they don’t see it,” Stavins said.

Grabbing the public’s attention would require a dramatic development, such as a “well-observed melting of parts of polar ice caps that result in some amount of sea-level rise,” Stavins said.

Outside of climate policy, the U.S. has the strongest environmental regulations in the world thanks to laws written in the 1970s, Stavins said. Those measures were adopted in response to high-profile events such as the Cuyahoga River catching fire in Cleveland, Ohio, he said.

Climate change “is one that is going to require some kind of enlightened leadership from the top down,” according to Stavins.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE