Missouri has a role in the climate change debate that’s bigger than many might think.

Put simply, Missouri burns more coal than most states, powering our homes and businesses and just about everything in them. All of Eastern Jackson County is served by private or municipal power plants that burn coal. And coal is dirty stuff. Burning it creates pollution that contributes to conditions such as asthma, and it creates greenhouse gases.

What should be done about it? There is a strong push from Washington to set limits on this type of air pollution, just as the government has limited or banned other types of air and water pollution over the years. The idea, in use in other countries, is to cap the overall amount of pollution and let producers trade those permits among themselves. In other words, if Utility A shifts to producing more electricity from wind power and doesn’t need to burn as much coal, it might sell its excess pollution rights to Utility B. Over time, the allowed level of pollution would come down.

This is the same thing the country has done since 1990 to get rid of sulfur dioxide to deal with an environmental problem from a generation ago – “acid rain.” It’s worked.

Everything comes at a cost, of course. The industry says this approach would bump up rates by 10 percent by 2015 (starting with 2005 as a base), although it’s hard to imagine rates not rising by that much on their own anyway.

The federal legislation also would spur the use of alternative sources of energy, something Missouri voters – with the industry’s blessing – embraced at the polls last fall. Those modest goals at least nudge the state in the right direction.

Not doing anything has its costs, too, particularly to human health. It’s a matter of finding the right goal, finding the right means of getting there and fairly allocating the costs. This has been coming for a long time. Missouri utilities and policy makers have had long enough to come up with good solutions. Now Congress is wading in. Hold on tight.