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Environment | Economy

Everybody Talks About Climate Change, But What Can We Do About It?

From Salem to Washington, D.C., the debate over whether humans are causing climate change appears to have given way to another debate: what to do about it. Rob Manning reports on a new study from an Oregon-led team of scientists.

The new report from the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network is meant to respond to ads like this one, funded by the conservative Institute for Energy Research.

Ad: “Some in Congress are trying to make American energy scarce, and even more expensive, with new taxes and costly regulations. That’s the wrong approach…."

That assumption —  that limiting carbon will slow economic growth — is not backed up by fact, according to  new study from the E3 network.

Kristen Sheeran co-authored the study, with two other economics Phd's, from Tufts University in Boston. Sheeran works out of the non-profit Ecotrust’s Portland office.

Kristen Sheeran: “Why is it that emissions per capita in Oregon, Washington, and California are significantly below the national average? And why are emissions in states like Wyoming, and West Virginia, and North Dakota significantly above?”

The study, “Greenhouse Gases and the American Lifestyle” compares carbon emissions state-by-state down to the household level.

If homes in one state get electricity from distant coal plants, the study tags that state with its share of that carbon load. 

Oregon, for instance, may produce lots of low-carbon hydroelectric power, but it also consumes lots of electricity from carbon-heavy coal plants.

Kristen Sheeran: “The differences - while they’re still there between states - aren’t not nearly as dramatic as first feared by many politicians.”

Still, Wyoming is responsible for about three times as much carbon per person as New York, for instance.

Of course, this is important because Congress may pass a law this year that would essentially put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, with the intent of nudging people to consume less.

But how much of a state’s carbon footprint can the government control?

There are two primary sources of man-made carbon emissions: vehicle exhaust and energy use. Some of that is hard to avoid. It’s hard to get anywhere in Wyoming without driving, for instance. And heating your home is a much bigger deal in cold places like North Dakota. Those states have big carbon footprints.

Kristen Sheeran: “What we found was that yes indeed, heating needs are a significant determinant of the differences between states, accounting for close to 60 percent of the difference in residential emissions.”

Sheeran says Congress might want to compensate for parts of the country where carbon costs would compound already high winter heating bills. But she states should first take steps to curb emissions. 

All this state-by-state data, though, misses the point, for critics of climate change regulation, like the Institute for Energy Research, which produced this ad.

Robert Murphy: “We’re very worried that these policies coming out of Washington are going to impose significant costs on the US economy.”

Robert Murphy is an economist with the Institute for Energy Research.

Robert Murphy: “They would actually have very little impact on worldwide emissions, or global warming, if they’re not conducted by all governments for decades straight.”

Sheeran disagrees. She points to states that spend big on gas taxes and energy efficiency, that still have with high incomes.

Kristen Sheeran: “This idea that quality of life is intrinsically tied to one’s carbon emissions, there’s just no evidence for that.”

A number of recent economic studies make the case for strong carbon regulations. A study from last February predicted the effects of global warming would cost Oregon and Washington alone, over $7 billion by 2020 – if there effective regulations aren’t put in place.