By Marshall Saunders
President Obama admits that the intelligence community "failed to connect those dots" that would have kept a would-be Nigerian terrorist off a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas. Congress, however, is failing to connect the dots of the bigger national security picture - those that tie climate change to the emergence of failed states.
In this century, the threat to our safety comes not from the organized enemy states of the Cold War, but from places where the rule of law has collapsed and extremist organizations can operate without fear of having their doors kicked in by government authorities. We can now add Yemen, where the latest terror plan was hatched, to the growing list of failed or failing states in which groups such as al-Qaeda can plot with impunity.
Should we fail to take steps to avert the disastrous effects of climate change, Yemen will be but the tip of the melting iceberg. More and more fragile countries will be pushed to the brink by food and water shortages, droughts and floods. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation teetering on the edge of instability, depends on the Himalayan glaciers for most of its water. Those glaciers will disappear unless we halt the escalating greenhouse effect caused by excess carbon dioxide and other gases in our atmosphere.
If we keep burning fossil fuels at current rates, we could see dozens of such failed states by midcentury. Does America have the resources or manpower to engage or intervene in so many places around the world? Is this the sort of national security nightmare we want to leave for our children and grandchildren? It would be far less costly - in both money and lives - to deal aggressively with climate change than to deal with more countries descending into chaos.
At the moment, however, prospects for effective U.S. climate-change legislation appear rather bleak. A version of the cap-and-trade bill passed in the House last summer is now stalled in the Senate, where a number of Democrats are urging their leaders to drop it entirely.
Even if the legislation passes, there are serious doubts about whether cap-and-trade could accomplish its objective. Weaning America off carbon-based fuels would require a swift transition to clean energy. For consumers, businesses, and utilities to make the long-term investments needed for such a transition, they have to be certain that such expenditures are economically sound. In other words, they must be assured that alternative energy will be competitive with - if not cheaper than - fossil fuels. But because of its speculative nature, cap-and-trade would leave the price of carbon unpredictable, discouraging such long-term investments.
The other enormous flaw in the current legislation is its provision for the purchasing of "carbon offsets," which would let polluters spew more carbon dioxide than their permits allow. For example, a company could pay a country in South America to spare a portion of its rain forest, which absorbs carbon.
This would only shift the problem elsewhere. Trees might be saved in Brazil, but they would be chopped down in Indonesia to satisfy global lumber demands. The result: no net reduction in carbon emissions.
It's time to get climate-change legislation back on track and make it more effective. Let me suggest a Plan B.
Last year, Reps. Bob Inglis (R., S.C.) and John Larson (D., Conn.) introduced bills to impose escalating pollution fees on carbon-based fuels. The revenue from the fees would be returned to households through monthly payments or reductions in payroll taxes. And the recycled revenue would offset higher energy costs associated with the pollution fees. In many instances, especially in households using less energy, the "dividends" would be greater than the increased energy costs, providing an economic stimulus.
By taxing carbon and returning the revenue to households, we could level the playing field for clean energy without subjecting Americans to economic hardship. And as green technologies become competitive with fossil fuels, we would create the jobs that can sustain our economy for the next century. It's a win for the climate as well as for taxpayers.
The Inglis and Larson proposals failed to gain traction after the House passed its cap-and-trade bill. But with cap-and-trade dying slowly in the Senate, it's time to revisit their approach.
If we stop the catastrophic effects of climate change, we'll reduce the number of fragile nations that become failed states. And that's one way to assure that fewer Americans will have to be put in harm's way for our protection.