A disservice to South Dakota

We received a guest editorial this week from Sen. John Thune about the economic havoc that legislation currently being considered in Congress will pose, in his opinion, for farm states like South Dakota.

The legislation Thune opines about is commonly known as cap and trade. He unfortunately doesn't attempt to explain the goals of this legislation. I guess he thinks we don't need to know the details.

All we need to know, according to the senator, is that it's bad for us.

The goal of cap and trade is to steadily reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective manner. Here's how it works:

The cap: Each large-scale emitter of carbon dioxide will have a limit on the amount of greenhouse gas that it can emit. The firm must have an "emissions permit" for every ton of carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere. These permits set an enforceable limit, or cap, on the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that the company is allowed to emit. Over time, the limits become stricter, allowing less and less pollution, until the ultimate reduction goal is met.

This is similar to the cap and trade program enacted by the Clean Air Act of 1990, which reduced the sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, and it met the goals at a much lower cost than industry or government predicted.

The trade: According to the Center for American Progress, it will be relatively cheaper or easier for some companies to reduce their emissions below their required limit than others. These more efficient companies, who emit less than their allowance, can sell their extra permits to companies that are not able to make reductions as easily. This creates a system that guarantees a set level of overall reductions, while rewarding the most efficient companies and ensuring that the cap can be met at the lowest possible cost to the economy.


The profits: If the federal government auctions the emissions permits to the companies required to reduce their emissions, it would create a large and dependable revenue stream. These financial resources could be used to achieve critical public policy objectives related to climate change mitigation and economic development. The federal government can also choose to "grandfather" allowances to the polluting firms by handing them out free based on historic or projected emissions. This would give the most benefits to those companies with higher baseline emissions that have historically done the least to reduce their pollution.

Thune worries that cap and trade will unfairly target rural states. He notes that South Dakota, and the rest of the nation, gets a large percentage of its electrical power from coal.

"While I am a strong supporter of the hydro electric power that is generated by the dams on the Missouri River as well wind energy development in South Dakota, the simple fact is that coal will continue to provide a large percentage of our nation's base load energy needs in the future," he said.

Cap and trade, he continues, would result in higher fuel and fertilizer costs that would harm South Dakota's agriculture industry.

"Any of the so-called 'free allowances' touted by cap and trade proponents would likely be used up by other energy intensive manufacturing industries before fertilizer manufacturers would be able to use them," Thune states in his column.

Is cap and trade a serious issue? Yes. Is it something South Dakotans should be concerned about? Of course.

That's why we urge our readers to consider the source of all of the information they may consume in the coming year or so about this issue.

Is a Republican senator from a rural state going to oppose a proposal that has the support of a Democratic president from a urban, industrialized area of the nation? You can bet on it.

Plus, you have to admit there's a bit of "preaching to the choir" going on here. Thune wants to get re-elected, and there's no better way to do that than to take an issue, identify ways that it will negatively affect a great portion of his constituency, and then oppose it. You don't even have to fully explain the issue. All Thune has to do is simply talk about what he perceives to be the negative aspects of the legislation over and over to come across as being a real stand up guy to voters.

Here's what Thune never mentions as he opines about the economic havoc he believes cap and trade will cause South Dakota.

The senator won't talk about the serious impacts that climate change has already caused and is still causing to American agriculture.

Changes in extreme weather are "among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate," a 2008 federal report indicated. In the future, the report predicts, "With continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity." (U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2008)

A Government Accountability Office investigation in 2007 found that private and government insurers including the federal crop and flood insurance programs paid out more than $320 billion for weather-related losses between 1980 and 2005. Why? Climate change is helping to drive the upward trend in catastrophes. An insurance company database showed that weather-related disasters have increased sixfold since the 1950s, compared to only a slight increase in non-weather disasters.

A report in 2000 by Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment found that extreme weather events have "caused severe crop damage and have exacted a significant economic toll for U.S. farmers over the past 20 years" and "could rise significantly due to greater climate variability, and to increases in insects, weeds, and plant diseases." Total damages – including agricultural losses – from the 1988 drought and 1993 Midwest floods were $79 billion. In the future, "variability of precipitation – in time, space, and intensity – will make U.S. agriculture increasingly unstable and make it more difficult for U.S. farmers to plan what crops to plan and when." (Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, 5/2000).

Looking just at increased soil moisture that comes with higher precipitation driven by climate change, authors of a study published in 2002 by Global Environmental Change estimated that the roughly $1.5 billion per year in crop damage could double by the 2030s. And an April report by Environment America found that U.S. corn growers could face annual losses of $1.4 billion due to future climate change, looking at just how higher temperatures reduce yields. (USDA Risk Management Agency; Global Environmental Change, 11/15/2002; Environment America, 4/2009).

Thune notes in his column that "in the coming weeks and months I will actively be working with my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stop it (the cap and trade legislation recently passed by the U.S. House.)"

When he votes "no" on this, when he perhaps uses his growing power in the U.S. Senate to kill this legislation, we hope the senator will explain to the nation, and especially South Dakota, the way his actions have helped us.

South Dakota farmers are proud to be good stewards of the land. They know that their livelihood depends on how well they care for soil, water and all living things, great and small.

Thune appears to be ignoring the fact that American farmers, as well as the rest of our nation's population, have a huge stake in the fight to stem global climate change.

It may be popular politically for Thune to make cap and trade an "us versus them" issue (us being those who enjoy life in rural America, and them being everybody else in the country).

But for him to hold climate change hostage, in a sense, over a legislative battle over cap and trade is a grave, shortsighted disservice to South Dakotans and the nation.

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