Earth Day arrives this year with serious questions about America’s commitment to preserve a clean environment and limit the risks posed by climate change. That’s because on March 28, President Trump signed an executive order to start the process of dismantling several initiatives under the Obama administration to reduce pollution that drives climate change, pollution that also affects the air we breathe and the water we drink.
These initiatives became necessary when Congress failed in 2010 to enact legislation to price carbon. When control of the House of Representatives shifted to Republicans in 2011, efforts to legislate climate solutions came to a screeching halt. Faced with numerous impacts from climate change — rising seas, warmer temperatures, more severe weather, wildfires, health risks — Obama took several steps to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions under the Climate Action Plan.
The most important of these steps was the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants 32 percent by 2030. The CPP became an essential element in the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate accord, whereby America pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025.
Without the CPP, the U.S. is unlikely to meet its Paris commitment, a tremendous setback in global efforts to keep temperatures from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Crossing the 2-Celsius threshold, scientists warn, will lead to catastrophic consequences that the world is ill prepared to handle — food shortages, coastal flooding epidemics, mass migrations, destabilized nations.
With the executive branch now shirking any responsibility to deal with climate change, Congress must step into the breach. America can meet its obligation — and then some — with a market based solution that appeals to policy makers across the political spectrum: a steadily rising fee on carbon with revenue returned to households.
Known as Carbon Fee and Dividend, the policy would assess a fee on the carbon dioxide content of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — at or near the first point sale. The fee would start at $15 per ton of CO2 and increase $10 per ton each year, sending a powerful signal to the marketplace that moves investments and behavior toward clean energy and efficiency. At the same time, revenue from the fee would be returned equally to all households, shielding families from the economic impact of the carbon fee, with many households actually coming out ahead.
A study released in 2014 by Regional Economic Models, Inc., examined this proposal to determine its environmental and economic impact over a 20-year period. The REMI study found that after 20 years, the policy would cut CO2 emissions by half. In a finding that shatters the myth that carbon pricing would destroy the economy, the study showed that Carbon Fee and Dividend would add 2.8 million jobs.
A similar plan was proposed in February by the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), a conservative group led by Republican luminaries that include former Secretaries of State and Treasury George Shultz and James Baker. While the CLC plan is slightly different — the price starts higher and increases more slowly — the basic pillars are the same: Put a fee on carbon and give the revenue back to households.
What are the chances that a Republican-controlled Congress will consider climate legislation? Much better than most people realize.
With each week, more and more Republicans are joining the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, a place free of the toxic rhetoric surrounding the climate issue, where equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats come together to listen to one another, share ideas and find common ground for effective solutions to climate change. The caucus currently has 38 members, 19 of them from the GOP side of the aisle.
This Earth Day, as we take stock of the state of our world and the steps needed to preserve a hospitable climate, Americans should be alarmed by the callous disregard the current administration has toward the threat of global warming. Fortunately, we have another branch of government that can correct Trump’s misguided policies.
By enacting a fee on carbon with revenue returned to households, Congress can avert disaster, create jobs and reassert U.S. leadership on the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.
Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.