By Seth Borenstein
AP Science Writer
Washington (AP) — Ditching their past cautious tone, the nation’s top scientists urged the government Wednesday to take drastic action to raise the cost of using coal and oil in an effort to slow global warming.
The National Academy of Sciences called for a carbon tax on fossil fuels or a cap-and-trade system for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, calling global warming an urgent threat.
The academy, which advises the government on scientific matters, said the nation needs to cut the pollution that causes global warming by about 57 percent to 83 percent by 2050. That’s close to President Barack Obama’s goal.
“We really need to get started right away. It’s not opinion. It’s what the science tells you,” said academy panel vice chairman Robert Fri, who was acting Environmental Protection Agency chief under President Richard Nixon. “The country needs both a prompt and a sustained commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
In the past, the academy has called climate change a problem, but it has never recommended a specific policy. The impetus for its bolder stance now was a set of questions posed by Congress on climate change and how to deal with it.
The cap-and-trade idea, which is supported by the Obama administration, has been proposed for several years in Congress but never passed the Senate. It would set overall limits on carbon dioxide pollution, but would let companies pollute more by paying for it and buying pollution credits from cleaner companies.
Last year, the House approved a cap-and-trade bill, but it stalled in the Senate as health care legislation took center stage. A new version, that doesn’t use the cap-and-trade phrase but has similar characteristics, was introduced last week. Lawmakers have pledged a floor vote on the bill this summer.
The national academy is an elite independent organization chartered to give the federal government advice on science and technical matters.
In a series of three reports, the panel tried to illustrate the challenge ahead by describing tons of polluting gases as money in a budget. America is on an escalating trajectory to blow its budget. The budget allows for the use of 170 billion to 200 billion tons between now and 2050. In 2008, America spewed 7 billion tons of greenhouse gas.
“If we continue at the same rate we’re going,î said panel member Ed Rubin, an engineering and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University, ìwe’re going to use that up quickly, which is the case for urgency.”
Science Writer Randolph E. Schmid also contributed to this report.