Their View: Major ice loss puts Congress on clock

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The Washington Post.

“This is really happening,” NASA’s Thomas P. Wagner told the New York Times in May, describing the collapse of ice formations in western Antarctica. Since then, the news has only gotten worse.

According to a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, the ice loss in a particularly vulnerable Antarctic region has accelerated over the past two decades — to 18 billion tons a year, three times the 20-year average. A Mount Everest’s worth of ice has slipped away every couple of years, researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California at Irvine found, comparing data from four different sources.

A second paper elaborated on the culprit: Warm water from deep below the surface is lapping up higher than before, undermining a massive frozen shelf that traps ice on land. This effect could mean trouble elsewhere around Antarctica, undermining the huge glaciers covering the continent.

All of these findings are bad news for sea levels, which could rise on the high end of scientists’ estimates over the coming decades if Antarctica continues down the path it seems to be on. That would inundate coastal communities in the United States and elsewhere.

As with so many alarming natural hazards, directly attributing some or all of western Antarctica’s ice loss to climate change is still a difficult business. But that is not a reason for comfort. Even in the surprising circumstance that there is no connection in this particular case, humans have no interest in policies that risk raising sea levels further.

That sort of prudence should animate public policy on carbon dioxide emissions, the chief agents of man-made climate change. Instead of using various uncertainties as excuses to do little or nothing — including questions about how all sorts of natural systems will react to a warmer world — leaders should hedge against major risks, just like big corporations do all the time.

There is nothing conservative about betting the climate on self-serving hopes that things will turn out fine, forcing future generations to live with whatever consequences result. There is nothing conservative about the subsidy the federal government gives carbon-intensive industries when it allows them to release greenhouse gases for free into the common air.

Yet Republicans are gearing up to protect that federal giveaway tooth-and-nail. The Senate’s incoming majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised major fights with the White House on Environmental Protection Agency climate rules. GOP leaders in various states, backed by industry lobbying groups, are coordinating legal and political attacks of their own, aiming for delays and, possibly, cancellation of the rules.

It’s fine if Republicans want to get rid of the EPA’s regulations, which aren’t the cheapest way to cut carbon emissions. But in that case, they should enact another, more efficient anti-carbon policy with similar or greater ambition. Doing anything else would be sheer malpractice — and proof that the GOP does not deserve the public’s trust.