PDF _ RL34513 - Climate Change: Current Issues and Policy Tools
6-Mar-2009; Jane A. Leggett; 32 p.

Update: Previous Releases:
June 3, 2008

Abstract: On June 2, 2008, the Senate agreed to consider a bill (S. 3036) to control greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. This action is indicative of the pressures Members of Congress increasingly face on whether and how to address human-induced climate change. Contentious debates scrutinize issues of science, economics, values, geopolitics and a host of other concerns. Deliberations also weigh the appropriateness of alternative policy tools and program designs. The economic stakes are potentially large – with both the costs of controls and the “costs of inaction” ranging, by some estimates, into trillions of dollars over several decades.

A major international assessment released in 2007 concluded that the Earth’s climate had warmed unequivocally over the past century, and that elevated levels of so-called “greenhouse gases” (GHG) were likely responsible for a major portion of the observed warming. Elevated concentrations of GHG in the atmosphere are due mostly to human activities, especially emissions from use of fossil fuels, clearing of land, and some industrial processes. Continued population and economic growth, with dependence on fossil fuels and needs for expanding agricultural lands, are expected to drive GHG emissions and induced climate change over the 21st Century to levels never experienced by human civilizations. While benefits may accrue to some people who may experience a limited amount of climate change, the aggregate effects are expected to become increasingly adverse, with people living in dry regions or along low-lying coasts, and people with low incomes, expected to be especially vulnerable. Adaptations can moderate the impacts and expand opportunities, but at a cost. Besides the overall costs of climate change, key concerns include the distributional effects within and across generations, how to value ecological impacts, and the potential for abrupt and irreversible changes. While important uncertainties remain concerning future climate change and its impacts, many experts are convinced that the evidence calls for U.S. action to abate GHG emissions. Others argue that mandatory controls would be premature, unnecessary or too costly.

For decision-makers considering actions to address climate change, an assortment of policy instruments is available; studies suggest that a combination could be most effective in achieving various climate policy objectives. Current policy attention has focused on “cap and trade” strategies to reduce GHG emissions, with additional policy tools aimed at promoting the technology development considered necessary to slow climate change significantly. In parallel, growing attention is being given to supporting adaptations to expected future changes, as well as to strategies to gain effective international engagement in reducing GHG. One significant obstacle to consensus is concern about the potential costs of abating GHG emissions, since deep reductions would require extraordinary changes in energy use and technologies. Studies suggest that efficiently designed programs could moderate the costs of reducing GHG emissions; technically and politically, though, an “efficiently designed” program may not be realistic. Policy options can ease the adjustments required and modify the distribution of costs – or potential wealth embodied in distribution of emission allowances – across specific sectors or populations. A core challenge of policy design, then, is balancing the climate effectiveness of a policy, the economic costs, and its distributional effects.

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Topics: Climate Change, Legislative

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