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On Climate Change, Conservatives Suddenly Multilateralists

Former Reagan administration economic adviser Martin Feldstein today makes the case — oft-mentioned in conservative circles — that the Democrats’ proposal to tackle climate change with a cap-and-trade system would put undo burdens on domestic industries, leading to higher costs for everyone. Instead, the Harvard University economist writes in a Washington Post op-ed, lawmakers “should wait until there is a global agreement on CO2 that includes China and India before committing to costly reductions in the United States.”

Scientists agree that CO2 emissions around the world could lead to rising temperatures with serious long-term environmental consequences. But that is not a reason to enact a U.S. cap-and-trade system until there is a global agreement on CO2 reduction.

Citing a report from the Congressional Budget Office, Feldstein says that every 15 percent cut in the nation’s emissions would hike the typical family’s household expenses by $1,600 a year. (The Democrats’ strategy aims to reduce U.S. emissions 83 percent by 2050.) “Americans should ask themselves,” Feldstein says, “whether this annual tax of $1,600-plus per family is justified by the very small resulting decline in global CO2.”

Though the argument is far advanced from that of climate-change deniers, it’s curious nonetheless. The United States, particularly this decade, isn’t exactly known for idling around in wait of international consensus before confronting a problem. Why, if climate change will have “serious long-term environmental consequences” would Congress sit on its hands instead of taking action? The question is particularly relevant because the United States, though it constitutes only about 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for more than 20 percent of its carbon emissions. Are we to believe that reducing that enormous contribution by 83 percent would result in a “very small … decline in global CO2?” And if climate change, as scientists say, both is exacerbated by these emissions and threatens the well-being of billions of folks around the globe, don’t we have a responsibility to curtail our contribution, regardless of what Beijing and New Delhi are up to?

Whatever happened to the ostensibly conservative notion of leading by example?

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