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Must read: Top US scientists urge coal, oil use penalties

WASHINGTON -- Ditching its 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 to slow global warming.

The National Academy of Sciences specifically 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.

Fri was acting Environmental Protection Agency chief under President Richard Nixon and until recently on the board of American Electric Power Co., a major producer of carbon dioxide. ''The country needs both a prompt and a sustained commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,'' he said Wednesday.

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 allow companies to pollute more by paying for it and buying pollution credits from cleaner companies.