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The Greenhouse Gas Inventory

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With respect to climate change, Congress seems stuck, at least for the near future. Here's an idea that might produce some action, and that might have a significant effect.

In brief: Congress should require a Greenhouse Gas Inventory (GGI), modelled on the stunningly successful Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). The point of the GGI would be to require all significant producers of greenhouse gases (including existing power plants) to disclose their emissions transparently and on an annual basis. State and local governments could respond to the disclosure with legislation. If, for example, emissions have jumped in Illinois or Wisconsin in a particular year, legislation could be adopted. Citizens would be able to see the sources of the major greenhouse gas emissions; they would also be able to pressure the biggest emitters, or those that have seen large spurts, to make reductions.

The TRI, a predecessor for the GGI, has been an unanticipated environmental success story. It has produced large, low-cost reductions in toxic releases, because no one wanted to be seen as one of the "dirty dozen" (or hundred). It also obtained strong bipartisan support. There is every reason to think that a GGI would do considerable good, maybe more than that, and little harm. It too should also be able to attract bipartisan support. (How many legislators would object to a disclosure requirement? Some, to be sure; but a majority? Would the Bush Administration threaten to veto a mere disclosure requirement? Let's hope not.)

There is a larger lesson here about the potential of disclosure to produce significant environmental benefits (and benefits of many other kinds). The United States has been slow to take action in the domain of climate change. A Greenhouse Gas Inventory would be a terrific place to start.

--Cass Sunstein

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