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Carbon fee takes climate change to market

Political will is all that’s lacking


In his Sept. 27 global-warming commentary, Hank Waters said we can’t prevent climate change, so we should limit our discussion to how we should react to it: move farms as the climate changes, deal with the flooding and watch fish swim to cooler waters. We will need to prepare and adapt, but we also can avoid the worst that climate change might bring.

The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment provides us with four scenarios for our future. One, based on significant greenhouse emission cuts, suggests we can keep temperatures below what is needed for a reasonably livable climate. The world’s children deserve our best effort at reducing those emissions.

I say children not because climate change is in the future but because the World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already causing more than 150,000 deaths annually, mostly children in poor countries, but we’ve clearly been hit here in the United States, too.

Our alternative to taking action is to accept one of those other IPCC scenarios, where oil barons believe they can live comfortably in a rapidly changing climate. Maybe they can, if we let them get rich enough from burning “our” planet’s coal, tar sands and oil. Through their industry-funded think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute and its “purchased” scientists, they will try to convince us that the IPCC has it wrong and we’ll all be fine, even if we continue to burn the planet.

The problem is that today’s fossil-fuel subsidies and our willingness to let companies freely dump carbon dioxide into our air create a market failure. The companies make the money, and we all pay the cost of using our air as a dumpsite in the form of disaster relief, home and health insurance, and federally subsidized crop insurance. These costs, along with the human tragedy, will dramatically increase if we do nothing to slow climate change.

We can correct this market failure by placing a fee on carbon. In June, I joined 400 Citizens Climate Lobby members in Washington, D.C., to build support for a bipartisan, market-based approach to pricing carbon. In total, we met with 437 offices of the U.S. Congress. The basics of the plan are simple: 1) put a fee on carbon-based fuels, 2) return 100 percent of the revenue directly to households and 3) include a border fee for goods coming in from any nation that does not institute a similar carbon fee.

A fee on carbon would make it clear to citizens and businesses that the price of fossil fuels will increase. Suddenly, it is smart to change to efficient lighting, appliances and cars; upgrade insulation and windows; turn off a truck while chatting with a neighbor; and generate electricity with sustainable energy such as wind, solar and biomass.

The only way for a carbon fee to work without creating financial pain for citizens is to return 100 percent of the revenue to households. Most families, especially poor families, do not have huge carbon footprints and would actually benefit financially. Still, reducing fossil fuel use would be “smart” for them, too.

Everyone agrees that reducing U.S. emissions will have limited effect if China and India continue to pollute at accelerating rates. That’s why we include a border tariff on imports from nations that don’t have carbon-pricing. Rather than enrich the U.S. Treasury, other nations will want to implement their own carbon-pricing and keep that revenue within their borders.

Many conservatives such as Gregory Mankiw, economic adviser to George W. Bush; Andrew Maylan, R Street Institute; Art Laffer, economic adviser for Ronald Reagan; Gary Becker, conservative Nobel laureate economist; and George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, support such a plan. It’s a plan that both conservatives and progressives can support.

On my first day as a lobbyist, President Barack Obama introduced his climate plan. Our message was that Obama was doing what he could with congressional inaction, but rather than EPA regulations or creating new government programs to pick winners and losers for the energy industry, a market-based carbon fee would be far more successful.

If you are concerned about climate change, nothing will make you feel more hopeful than joining one of the many organizations dedicated to climate action. Along with 3,500 Citizens Climate Lobby members — and we’re growing rapidly — I’ve learned we have the technology and money to build a thriving low-carbon economy; we only need to create the political will to make it happen. To learn more, visit citizensclimatelobby.org.

Steve Valk
Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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