Editorial Board

Good Report! Now, About That Climate

The National Climate Assessment is a noble effort that's unlikely to change many people's minds. Let's move on to doing stuff.
A power plant that captures its own carbon emissions? That's a great start. Photographer: Gary Tramontina/Bloomberg

Two things that the developed world produces in great abundance are carbon dioxide and reports about the effects of carbon dioxide. It's not so good at coming up with solutions, even as the need becomes more urgent.

Today the federal government released the latest National Climate Assessment, documenting more heat waves and flooding in the Northeast, less water for crops in the Great Plains, droughts in the Northwest, more forest fires in the Southwest and thawing permafrost in Alaska.

QuickTake Climate Change

Putting all that information together, and making it easily accessible online, is a useful step in showing Americans the reality of climate change. But then, if you've been following this debate, or if you check the Weather Channel now and then, none of it will be much of a surprise. And if you still don't believe in climate change, this report is unlikely to change your mind.

How to change those minds is a less pressing challenge than how to slow down climate change. The basic answer is clear enough -- release less carbon dioxide into the air -- but making it happen is anything but. Broadly speaking, it will require changing incentives, laws and regulations in the U.S. as well as pushing for international agreements to do the same. The U.S. may not be able to stop climate change on its own, but it can lead by example.

The best approach is to put a price on carbon, giving companies that produce it a financial incentive to produce less and then letting the market find the best solutions. That's not going to happen soon, though making the proposal revenue-neutral might help lessen the resistance.

In the meantime, there are other avenues to pursue. The Environmental Protection Agency is developing emissions rules for new and existing power plants. Opponents condemn those rules as a war on coal, but they don't need to be: Done right, the rules can encourage power companies to develop new carbon-reduction technologies.

Tax incentives that encourage the capture and use of carbon can also be helpful. Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced legislation this week that would offer tax credits to power plants that capture at least 65 percent of their carbon emissions, authorize $20 billion in loan guarantees for commercial-scale power plants that capture and store carbon, and expand an existing credit for carbon used in oil recovery.

Maybe the easiest part of the solution is to avoid making things worse. The U.S. has 100 nuclear reactors, and cost pressures are causing some of the owners of those reactors to close them. The federal government noted recently that an accelerated rate of retirement could increase emissions 4 percent by 2040, because nuclear power is typically replaced with carbon-based power. People may disagree over whether to build new nuclear plants, and the government should ensure that existing ones are safe, but nuclear power is a crucial part of any plan to address climate change.

The beauty of accepting those approaches, and others like them, is that doing so doesn't depend on accepting that all of the science of climate change is settled. The consequences of climate change, for example, are not -- and don't need to be. The need to reduce carbon emissions, and to adapt to climate change, is already clear, if nothing else as an insurance policy against catastrophic climate change. No further report is necessary.