Climate change is a real and urgent crisis, a fact that no longer can be denied. The question now is what to do about it.
Many Floridians believe the answer lies in the power of market solutions. The principal challenge today is that a coherent global market for carbon emissions, the primary driver of climate change, does not yet exist. The first step to creating that market is reframing how we think and talk about emissions.
Think of the atmosphere like a football stadium, with a limited capacity for the number of people that it can safely hold. For example, Hard Rock Stadium in Miami has a listed capacity of 65,000.
Although you could pack many more people than that into the venue, letting in more than the structure can handle will risk the health and safety of everyone inside.
Similarly, there is a limited amount of carbon dioxide that the atmosphere can safely hold, before the stability of the climate and the Earth’s ability to sustain our civilization is put at risk. Managing this limited capacity is the central challenge of the climate crisis.
Carbon gases in the atmosphere keep the planet warm enough to sustain humanity and maintain stable ecosystems around the world. By studying the ice in mountain glaciers and at the North and South poles, scientists can measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and the average temperature on the planet over the past 800,000 years.
Throughout most of this period, carbon levels in the air have gone through very regular cycles, and the average temperatures on the planet’s surface have closely followed those cycles. However, since 1950 the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has broken out of these historical patterns, and today these levels have skyrocketed to nearly one and a half times what was measured at any time for a similar period in the past.
As we’ve removed carbon that had been safely stored deep in the Earth’s crust as coal, oil and gas, and released it into the air as carbon dioxide, we have treated the atmosphere as if its capacity has no limits. At the same time, we’re seeing more evidence of climate change every day, including stronger storms, longer droughts, and more extreme hot and cold snaps.
To return to the stadium analogy, it’s as if we have left the gates wide open and unattended, and many more people are crowding into the venue than it can safely hold.
This scenario is a disaster waiting to happen, but there’s a simple market-based solution. When we sell tickets, or station ushers at the gates to regulate admission, we establish a property right for a slice of the limited capacity. Property rights are the basis of all markets, and they are necessary to any solution to manage the risks of overcrowding.
When we talk about putting a price on carbon, through a tax, fee or dividend, or distributing allotments under a cap-and-trade scheme, these are just a few of the different ways to establish a property right.
The current situation we have now at the federal level in the United States is not a market solution at all; it’s the opposite. Like a stadium with the gates standing open and unattended, we rely on the collective good will and good sense of the community to share this scarce and valuable resource.
To effectively address the climate crisis, we need to recognize the limited capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon emissions. We need to establish property rights for that capacity in order to pave the way for true market-based solutions that will help prevent the alternative, which is a climate change disaster waiting to happen.
Christopher Schnyer is Advisor to VoLo Foundation, a nonprofit foundation focused on science-based climate solutions, education and health.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.