This column by John Mott-Smith is republished from the Davis Enterprise.

Perhaps this is not true for everyone, but it has been an article of faith (and hope) for me that the consequence of delaying action now to curb emissions would be the necessity for future actions, be they laws or regulations, to be stronger.

The assumption is that at some point we would reach a point where policymakers catch up with scientists and get off their rear ends to tackle climate change. The laws and regulations enacted in the future would be more stringent than if enacted now because we would have less time to avoid reaching tipping points.

There’s another possible scenario, however. The most recent report from the scientific community expresses alarm and deep concern that our failure to act now to reduce emissions could result in worldwide food shortages, regional displacement of large numbers of people, flooding of major cities, and other events and circumstances that will put people and nations in conflict with each other.

In the event that the scientists are right, very strong measures will be necessary to limit further emissions and also to respond to conflicts. My worry is that when confronted with a conflict over resources, people tend not so much toward rational solutions that are fair for everyone but instead hunker down to protect what they have. Meanwhile, the “have-nots” will want what the “haves” have, be it water, food, shelter or something else.

A frightening example is the U.S. military’s concern that climate change could create conflict over fresh water supplies between China, India and Pakistan, countries with nuclear arsenals.

The military, by the way, is very actively analyzing and planning for security issues due to climate change. The generals are pragmatic. The man who could be the next chair of the Energy Committee in the Senate dismisses their concern: “There is no one more in pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer.”

It seems to me that history offers very few examples of conflict being solved between nations by sitting down and talking. A more common response when push comes to shove is to demonize the “other” as the enemy and rouse the populace with images that create fear, hatred and aggression.

Maybe I’m stretching a point, but this is, for purposes of this column, prologue to a situation emerging here in California. Our state leads the country in its response to climate change. A portion of that response is the cap-and-trade program that sets ever-declining limits to greenhouse gas emissions by major producers of those emissions.

Producers of transportation fuels such as gasoline have been exempt from this system, but will be included starting in January. The oil industry has responded with an aggressive advertising campaign labeling this a “hidden tax” and targeting candidates in 12 legislative races. They claim that this new requirement will increase the cost of gasoline and they are concerned that poor people will be hit hard by any increase in the cost of gasoline.

This claim has taken hold with enough members of the Legislature that some are concerned that unless there is a postponement, the entire cap-and-trade system could buckle under the pressure of angry motorists. They cite polling that indicates that while 75 percent of voters believe the state should include fuel producers in the cap-and-trade system, this number plummets to less than 40 percent if it means gas costs more at the pump.

How much more? Estimates vary. The state estimates a minor increase of about 10 cents a gallon. Not surprisingly, the fuel industry calculates as much as 50 cents a gallon.

Interestingly, the price of gasoline has been in a free-fall, declining in California by almost 50 cents per gallon in the past year, with the price falling to less than $3 per gallon nationally.

We are going to find out whose estimate is right because this will go into effect in 2015, but the discussion raises an important issue. If we are not able to include fuel producers in the cap-and-trade system now, when gas prices are low and falling, when would we be able to do so?

More generally, and germane to the “when push comes to shove” issue raised above, efforts in California and nationally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have, to date, asked almost nothing of individuals. We are encouraged to change out light bulbs, but the overwhelming majority of reductions have been due to government actions on the automobile industry (higher mpg standards), the utilities (requirement for higher percentage of power produced by renewables) and manufacturers (energy-efficiency standards for appliances and homes).

It seems to me that if, as scientists are predicting, achieving much higher reductions will be required in the future, we ought to be starting now to involve everyone in this process. We ought to ask individuals to join in the effort and to understand that we are all in this together, before push comes to shove.

The issue of unequal impact on persons of lower income is very real and needs to be addressed. But it seems a bit on the hollow side coming from the oil industry.