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VIEWPOINT: Cap and trade has worked in the past

GRAND FORKS -- The scientific debate on climate change is over, but Danish Professor Bjorn Lomborg reminds us that the political discussion is still alive and well ("Don't toss reason on global-warming bonfire," Page A4, July 17).

GRAND FORKS -- The scientific debate on climate change is over, but Danish Professor Bjorn Lomborg reminds us that the political discussion is still alive and well ("Don't toss reason on global-warming bonfire," Page A4, July 17).

Lomborg makes the apparently reasonable claim that we should ignore the climate changes caused by global warming because nothing we can do will have any appreciable impact on the problem.

I am old enough to remember the early 1970s, when acid rains began to damage the forests of New England. I also am old enough to remember when health officials began to warn us against eating fish caught in the rivers east of the Mississippi because the fish stocks in our part of the country were heavily contaminated with mercury.

And I am old enough to remember the fiery political rhetoric in favor of letting the fish die and the forests disappear because anything tree-huggers might recommend to prevent this result would be ruinously expensive.

Thank goodness for a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who instituted a cap-and-trade system, which gradually reduced and ultimately eliminated the sulfur dioxide emissions that were killing the forests and the mercury emissions that were contaminating our wild fish populations. The system worked because it imposed a market price on the right to emit the pollutants caused by burning coal in electrical power plants and provided payments to the utilities who installed scrubbers to capture the pollutants before they entered the atmosphere.

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The cap part of Bush's system imposed a limit on the amount of sulfur dioxide and mercury that could be legally dumped into the air over the course of a year. The cap gradually was lowered each year until the rains stopped killing the forests and wild fish became safe to eat once again.

The trade part involved permits letting coal-burning firms emit a given amount of sulfur dioxide and mercury during the next 12 months. Utilities that installed pollution control devices in their power plants no longer would require a permit to pollute because the new equipment eliminated the pollution.

And firms that no longer needed their pollution permits could sell the permits to other utilities that still were polluting the atmosphere. At first, the proceeds from the sale of these pollution permits were barely enough to help pay for the cost of the new pollution control devices. But as the cap on the amount of pollution that utilities could legally produce got smaller, the cost of the permits grew, until the cost of a pollution permit exceeded the cost of pollution control devices.

The system worked, and within a decade, both the forests and the fish were healthy once again. That is why President Barack Obama recommended and the House of Representatives passed the cap-and-trade system that will begin reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. to 1980 levels.

Now, the new technology that will let coal-fired power plants achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions is expensive. It will cost billions of dollars. But don't forget that the cost of this new equipment will be spread over trillions of kilowatt hours, so the cost to each one of us is estimated by the Congressional Budget office to be about $175 per year.

If you want to call that a tax, I don't mind. But is certainly a tax we can live with. What is not at all certain is whether we will be able to live with the results of a continuously warming climate.

Potter is a Presbyterian pastor.

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