Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The costs of addressing climate change, and the cost of not

Writing in Sunday's AJC, Dan Chapman and Greg Bluestein take a look at the climate-induced changes already underway along the Georgia coast and at the continuing sense of denial by the state's political leadership:

"Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, wouldn’t answer questions about the governor’s views on climate change. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican who lives on Sea Island, a barrier island threatened by rising seas, said “the scientific community is not in total agreement about whether mankind has been a contributing factor.”

As they report, a tidal gauge off Fort Pulaski near Tybee Island documents a sea-level rise of 11 inches over the past 80 years, with the pace accelerating since the 1990s. Should that trend continue, as scientists warn it will without effective action, most of the state's barrier islands will disappear in the next century, as will much of the sea marsh that makes our coastal region so beautiful and so ecologically diverse and productive.

It's true that, as Perdue puts it, "the scientific community is not in total agreement" about mankind's role in those changes. However, "total agreement" strikes me as a peculiar standard for taking action. In most other policy areas, the overwhelming consensus of the acknowledged experts, augmented by the fact that since the 1980s that expert opinion has been validated by visible changes in the field, would be enough to push policymakers to take action, particularly when the potential consequences of doing nothing are so profound.

That's certainly been the approach taken by the Obama administration. Under its new climate-change plan released earlier this month, Georgia will be required to take action by reducing carbon emissions from power plants by 25 percent over the next 15 years.

That's a considerably more modest target than state leaders had feared, but the reaction to it has been predictable: Such a reduction can’t be accomplished, opponents claim, or if it can be done, it will come at enormous cost to electricity customers and the economy.

To quote Perdue again, “The damaging effects of this hostile executive action will drive up energy prices for Georgia families and businesses, while the ripple effect throughout our economy will increase costs of basic necessities for those already struggling to make ends meet.”

We’ve been through this before, repeatedly, both as a nation and as a state. Back in the early to mid-’90s, for example, the federal government classified metro Atlanta as a serious non-attainment area for air pollution, requiring the region to set a strict schedule for air-quality improvement. The reaction then was much as you see today.

Georgia Power complained that it would send electricity rates soaring. The new standards were supposed to be the “death knell” of economic development in the region, and the degree of air-quality improvement required was claimed by some to be all but impossible.

Then-Gov. Zell Miller wrote an angry letter of protest to the EPA, warning of “enormous economic and jobs consequences.” For a short period, highway projects were canceled and the region was stripped of federal transportation money until it compiled and committed to an improvement plan. (The state’s auto emissions-inspection program is the most visible outcome of that plan.)

Today, despite the naysayers, the air in metro Atlanta is demonstrably clearer than it was two decades ago. The eye-stinging, throat-burning ozone that routinely accumulated on hot summer days is now a rare occurrence. It’s safer for human beings to play outside, work outside. It is safer to simply breathe. What supposedly couldn’t be done — or couldn’t be done without turning metro Atlanta into a economic wasteland — has in fact been largely accomplished at relatively low cost, although continued improvement is still necessary.

In many ways, complying with the Clean Power Plan should be even easier, because many of the required changes are already underway. Georgia is already getting credit for taking coal-fired generation out of service and replacing it with nuclear power. And just a few years ago, Georgia Power steadfastly dismissed solar power as a possible option in Georgia, saying it was too expensive and the state didn’t get enough sunshine; today it says that “the future of solar is bright in Georgia.”

Judging from his own measured response, Gov. Nathan Deal seems to accept that reality. Rather than grandstand, Deal has instructed state officials to find the best possible way to meet the new standards. As a report last month by researchers at Georgia Tech concluded, a strategy of renewable energy and energy efficiency here in the South would not only bring us into compliance but produce “substantial collateral benefits including lower electricity bills across all customer classes, greater GDP growth, and significant reductions” in air pollution.

Doing nothing is not an option. Or at least, it shouldn't be.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.