John Cobourn: Congress needs to act on carbon pricing

Earth Day marked the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s pledge to have the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030, which is in line with commitments from other nations to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
The devastating impact of climate-related disasters has only become more evident in recent years. The consequences of altering our climate already include bigger and deadlier wildfires, flooding on a biblical scale, storms that are more destructive, and record-breaking heat waves. Without legislative action, the prospects for reining in climate change appear bleak. A federal fee on carbon pollution is probably the most effective single tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Here's how a carbon fee would work. Fossil fuels are relatively cheap, because buyers currently do not pay the true costs of burning them, which include the negative environmental impacts of global warming, e.g., floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and increased healthcare costs. These extra costs are called external costs or social costs. If the government adds them as a “fee” to the price of fossil fuels, that makes them more expensive. This is “carbon pricing.” A price on carbon would provide a strong, market-based incentive for people to transition to cheaper, cleaner fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon fee revenue could be given to households to shield people from increases in energy costs that may occur. Getting a monthly “carbon cashback” or “dividend” check each month would prove to be politically popular.
Another reason to include carbon pricing in a package of climate initiatives is that the European Union, which has a very robust price on carbon, is about to impose a carbon border adjustment mechanism on imports from nations that do not have an equivalent price on carbon, putting American manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage. Should the U.S. implement a carbon price with a border adjustment, it would provide a strong incentive for nations doing trade with the U.S. — just about everyone — to price carbon, thereby reducing fossil fuel use around the world.
Support for climate action growing
According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s long-running “Six Americas” study, nearly six in 10 Americans (58%) are now either alarmed or concerned about the changing climate.
With rising numbers of young conservatives pushing their party on the climate issue, some Republicans in Congress are responding. In 2019, a group of Senate Republicans teamed up with Democrats to form the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. The GOP chair of the caucus, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, introduced legislation — the Growing Climate Solutions Act — to help farmers and foresters get paid for using climate-friendly practices. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate last summer.
Several carbon pricing bills have been introduced in the 117th Congress, including the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 2307), which establishes a carbon price of $15 per ton and increases $10 per ton each year. It would return the proceeds of the fee directly to all American households. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, is a cosponsor this bill.
Americans concerned about climate change are building grassroots support for carbon pricing in communities all across the country — including ours. Citizens’ Climate Lobby is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, grassroots advocacy group with 450+ chapters across the country.
The first CCL chapter in Nevada started in 2015. Now, there are four chapters: Las Vegas, Carson City, Reno/Sparks, and an at-large chapter. See: https://citizensclimatelobby.org.
Congress must act
Just as time is running out for the world to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, so, too, is the clock ticking away on the best opportunity the U.S. has had to enact climate solutions in more than a decade. Senate leadership and the White House must come to the table with Sen. Manchin and hammer out an agreement that puts America on the path to meeting the climate goals laid out by Biden. Including a carbon fee with cashback to households and a carbon border adjustment will ensure those goals are met.

John Cobourn of Minden is a water resource specialist, emeritus with University of Nevada, Reno, Extension.

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