Last month the Supreme Court, with dissents from the four liberal justices, temporarily blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants. The new rules, aimed to curb climate change, would have required states to significantly cut carbon emissions from power plants.

The decision was made after 29 states, mostly Republican-led, challenged the EPA’s ruling. Eighteen states, mostly led by Democrats (including Hawaii), supported the EPA rules, saying that they are:

“continuing to experience climate change harms firsthand — including increased flooding, more severe storms, wildfires, and droughts. The harms of climate change that the Rule is designed to mitigate are lasting and irreversible. Any stay that results in further delay in emission reduction would compound the harms that climate change is already causing.”

Waikiki. HOnolulu Hawaii. Condominiums. Hotels. 24 jan 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu is considered vulnerable to climate change, especially from rising sea levels.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The planet is experiencing precipitous warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Every breath that you take has a higher concentration of carbon dioxide than anything that any of your human ancestors ever experienced. Because of that, last year was the hottest year on record, blowing past records of the second hottest year: 2014. Without a major disruption of the status quo, it’s only going to get a lot hotter.

The Paris Climate Change Conference

Which is why the world’s largest gathering of global leaders met in Paris last December to hash out a plan to reduce global emissions.

Their comprehensive global pact on climate change, known as COP21, was based, in part, on the United States drastically reducing carbon emissions from power plants through the EPA regulations.

The COP21 agreement commits nearly every country on Earth to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius and to wean ourselves entirely off of fossil fuels by the end of the century.

The United States took a leading role at the Paris conference because of the Obama administration’s ambitious power plant regulations. The Supreme Court’s decision represents a serious blow to the most important federal action on climate change ever.

“Inaction by the United States has long been the chief obstacle to meaningful global climate change agreements,” The New York Times reported, and “the Supreme Court’s surprise decision to halt President Obama’s climate change regulation could weaken or even imperil the international global warming accord.”

We don’t have time for the federal government’s halting progress.

According to the International Energy Agency, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2° C goal.”

Even the fossil fuel companies understand that simple troubling math. “We agree that burning all known reserves would probably cause global temperatures to rise by more than 2° C,” states BP’s corporate website, “and that addressing this issue will require the efforts of governments, industry and individuals.”

In order to maintain a habitable planet, a significant amount of our current fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground. Forever. So how do we make that happen?

The Economics Of Cutting Emissions

While scientists can tell us how low to keep emissions, we need economists to tell us the best way to get there.

In his his testimony at the opening of the Legislature, Hawaii’s premier economist, Paul Brewbaker, gave us the answer:

“Nobody in Hawaii is paying to emit atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases; and nobody is getting paid for innovative ways to sequester emissions. In a world in which the next FCC auction will allow participants to buy and sell spectrum, policy makers in Hawaii still avoid creating markets in which emissions are capped and traded. The idea has been around since the 1970s, two supercycles ago.”

To put it another way, economist Paul Krugman explains that “basic economics says that if we want to discourage a negative externality, like pollution, we need to put a price on that externality. One way is through an emissions tax; an alternative, with very similar economic results, is a system of tradable permits.”

Brewbaker’s policy recommendations for the Hawaii State Legislature are that “everybody should pay to emit atmospheric carbon [and] anybody should get paid to sequester atmospheric carbon.”

Economists largely agree that cap and trade is the most efficient way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

While economists largely agree that cap and trade is the most efficient way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, politicians have to look out for the best interests of their donors. And large emitters aren’t too keen to limit their carbon dioxide output.

So, while President Obama tried to push a comprehensive cap and trade bill through congress in 2010, it failed in the Senate.

Meanwhile, China, The European Union, India, New Zealand and South Korea all have instituted some form of cap and trade. But then, they don’t have a political party that refuses to acknowledge the science of climate change.

As a quick aside, there is a persuasive line of reasoning that the president does have the authority to expand the EPA’s role to include a nation-wide cap and trade program without having to go through Congress — but in a heated election year and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, I’m not holding my breath.

The Republican-led Congress has crippled all nationwide efforts at reducing carbon emissions at the scale necessary. And county governments have limited options beyond wise land use planning, incentivizing waste reduction, and expanding public transportation.

So the burden falls on the states.

What Hawaii Can Do

Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont all participate in The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative which was the first wide scale cap and trade plan for carbon dioxide in the U.S.

And California, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are part of the Western Climate Initiative — which “developed a comprehensive initiative to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.”

While cap and trade varies significantly from region to region, the basics are the same: An annual cap on emissions is determined; large emitters receive permits (either auctioned or free) from the government to emit carbon dioxide; the number of available permits goes down every year; and the regulated industries can buy, sell, or trade their permits.

The purpose is to allocate the true cost of carbon emissions, to treat carbon dioxide as a finite resource so that we can stay within our budget, and to create market incentives to reduce emissions regardless of the fluctuating price of oil.

Hawaii needs to cut emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050. Cap and trade would give us the direct path to achieve that goal while incentivizing innovation amongst high emitters.

We know that it will work, because it’s worked before. To combat acid rain, President George H.W. Bush instituted the first large-scale cap and trade program, limiting sulfur dioxide from coal burning power plants in 1990. In 14 years under the program, sulfur dioxide emissions fell 36 percent while power plant output increased by 25 percent.

A Harvard report reflecting on the success of market incentives in reducing acid rain noted that “cap and trade seems especially well suited to addressing the problem of climate change… recent hostility toward cap and trade in debates about U.S. climate legislation may reflect the broader political environment of the climate debate more than the substantive merits of market-based regulation.”

We know that we need to make drastic reductions in carbon emissions. We know that the best way is to put a cap on carbon emissions. And we know that the longer we wait, the harder it’s going to be.

It’s time for Hawaii to get on board with our neighbor states in the Western Climate Initiative by creating a market for carbon dioxide that will ensure a habitable planet.

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