WINSLOW – Why buy insurance? All of us buy insurance to protect ourselves against unlikely events such as fire or flood or a crash, any one of which might have a one-in-a-thousand chance of actually occurring.

In the 1980s, an insurance policy was written for Planet Earth! We were in grave danger then, not from global warming, but from a giant hole in the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. The world faced a terrifying future – one in which humans would be forced to hide from daylight to avoid harmful UV radiation, normally filtered by that ozone. Agriculture and entire ecosystems would collapse.

The story was just as odd as the current global warming. In the 1920s, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs or Freon) were found to be non-toxic, and were used as the safe refrigerant in an industry that took off, with air conditioners, freezers, etc.

In the 1960s and ’70s, scientists noticed high levels of CFCs in the atmosphere, and recognized that these seemingly innocent CFCs were actually destroying ozone molecules at an alarming rate. Yet, as with the current debate over climate change, financial resources from affected industries opposed the scientific findings and were opposed to change.

However, President Ronald Reagan, a skin cancer survivor who understood the dangers of unfiltered UV rays, agreed that an international treaty to phase out the production of CFCs would be a sensible insurance policy. And in September 1987, the U.S. led the world in signing the Montreal Protocol to ban the use of CFCs.

It worked. Today, the ozone hole is showing signs of recovery, and scientists predict that it will recover completely by 2065.

We are now in the midst of a similar story, this time about climate change. However, the chief chemicals involved are not man-made. They include the commonly known gases carbon dioxide and methane.

Carbon dioxide, as we all know, is a byproduct of our breathing, and an essential ingredient in plant photosynthesis, the foundation of most life on Earth. Methane is a natural byproduct of the anaerobic decay of organic matter in swamps, rice paddies and cows’ stomachs.

Those gases, though present in tiny quantities throughout the atmosphere, cause a natural “greenhouse effect” with a very beneficial effect on the temperature at Earth’s surface. Without the natural greenhouse effect, our daily temperatures would be approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder. Brrr …

Scientists who have studied carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in our atmosphere over time tell us that both have increased since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. That was when we clever humans started burning first coal, then oil, then natural gas (the “fossil fuels”), to replace much human and animal energy – for which we are all very grateful! Carbon dioxide concentrations are now over 140 percent of levels before the 1750s. Methane has more than doubled.

The oceans have taken up 93 percent of the additional heat, and we hardly notice it because water can take a lot of heat without getting significantly warmer. But don’t be fooled, Earth is heating enormously. The additional heat is calculated to be equivalent to the heat (not radiation) produced from four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs every second!

Worse news is that the heating our industrial civilization has caused is not done. Even if we stopped emitting additional carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the additional heating would continue. And we have yet to even slow our emissions, let alone stop them.

So our problem is similar to that which confronted President Reagan: Do we believe the scientists’ story, of increasing heating that could have disastrous effects for our civilization, the world’s ecosystems and other species? Or do we urge the development of an “insurance policy,” one that has the potential to limit the excessive warming?

Such a policy, now before the U.S. House, is the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which will put a price on the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. Industry will innovate in new types and applications of clean renewable (and cheaper) energy. The air will be cleaner. Lives will be saved. All this while working within a freer economy, unburdened by free pollution.

Now that’s some insurance policy, just right for Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to introduce into the U.S. Senate.


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