The debate over the Kerry-Boxer bill has picked up where Waxman-Markey left off: the economics of climate legislation. Perhaps empowered by the “death panel” misinformation campaign, climate bill obstructionists are reviving rumors of economic disaster in the hopes of panicking the public and eviscerating or blocking final legislation. Just as no one was every going to pull the plug on grandma, the truth of the matter is that the benefits of controlling our carbon emissions far outweigh the costs. As we enter the opening round of hearings on the bill, it is important to draw the line between fair political debate and misleading exaggeration.

When Senator Inhofe, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, claims that the bill would be the “largest tax increase in American history,” he is treading dangerously close to that line. In fact, reputable studies of the costs of climate change legislation have shown them to be relatively modest: less than a postage stamp per day

Senator Inhofe’s comment is likely based on data that has been twisted to suit opponents needs. In fact, one MIT professor who conducted a study on climate change economics was so upset by how his research was being misused that he took the unusual step of formally requesting that the work not be misquoted. But being called out by the author of the report did nothing to deter some legislators from getting their preferred message out. Even referring to this proposal as a “tax” is innacurate. The final bill is likely to either give allowances away or distribute funds from an auction back to consumers-neither method can rightly be called a “tax.” Prices for certain carbon-intensive products may rise, but those costs are accounted for in the “postage stamp” calculation. And Americans will be able to make choices-opt for clean energy products and services that will end up being cheaper than those that create a lot of heat-trapping pollution. That is, after all, the point of this exercise; to move away from the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet.

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Inhofe and his allies have taken a serious and complicated economic question and reduced it to a series of false one-liners. But, just as informed people now ignore Inhofe’s infamous claim that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated” on the American people, it’s time to disregard his bogus claims of economic doom-and-gloom.

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To engage in a meaningful debate about taking on climate change, the costs of action have to be compared to the costs of inaction.  Doing nothing may cost as much as nine times the price tag of the legislation-failing to combat climate change will impose an enormous economic penalty. In fact, the Kerry-Boxer bill is likely to generate trillions of dollars of benefits above and beyond the costs of the bill. This is a fact rarely mentioned on either side of the aisle, but is the fundamental economic reality that should be the centerpiece of the discussion, not a sideshow. 

Rigorous, honest debate is healthy, but spreading misinformation and intentionally exploiting economic fears has to be considered political malpractice if our democracy is to survive. The intricate questions facing society-health care, financial regulation, the national debt, climate change-will only get more complex as time goes on. If our political culture cannot evolve in a more civil direction, where facts and evidence take precedence over rumor and innuendo, we may find ourselves in a ditch too deep to climb out of.