Widening the circle: CCL’s take on Americans for Carbon Dividends
By Tony Sirna
After years of working to promote our Carbon Fee and Dividend policy, we are starting to see that work pay off. Since 2017, we’ve seen a major uptick of public awareness and congressional interest in the idea of pricing carbon and returning revenue to households. This is exciting—it shows we’re getting closer to our goal of a national carbon fee and dividend policy.
The momentum is especially obvious when you see the number of new groups forming to advocate for this approach: the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), Students for Carbon Dividends, and now, the Americans for Carbon Dividends (AFCD). AFCD is a political action committee of the CLC.
As we widen the circle and welcome these new advocates to the fee-and-dividend discussion, their presence can also prompt some questions. As CCL’s new Strategy Coordinator, I get questions about how this relates to CCL’s work: Can we trust the intentions of the AFCD’s conservative leaders and corporate funders? How do we continue to build a bridge toward a bipartisan solution—and is that really workable or desirable? How should CCL relate to their proposed policy, especially the limits on regulations and corporate liability?
In case you missed the announcement and its coverage in the press (NYT, WSJ, Politico, etc.), the AFCD is advocating for the Carbon Dividends policy rolled out by the Climate Leadership Council in 2017, which would put a $40/ton price carbon emissions and return 100% of the revenue to households. Their policy would also include a rollback of regulations and elimination of liability related to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Council’s founding members include Republican luminaries like cabinet secretaries George Shultz and James Baker, as well as corporations including General Motors, Pepsico, and Unilever and oil majors like BP, Total, and Exxon.
AFCD has enlisted the support of former Senators Trent Lott (R-MS) and John Breaux (D-LA) to lead their lobbying efforts.
I think it is great to see that AFCD is taking a bipartisan approach to its lobbying efforts, with Senators Lott and Breaux. We know the messenger matters when reaching out to Congress (or anyone, really) and AFCD has messengers who can reach both sides of the aisle as they build support for carbon pricing.
Bipartisanship is critical, because while control of Congress is up for grabs in the upcoming midterms, no one is predicting any party having 60 votes in the Senate anytime in at least the next six years. That means any climate legislation that passes Congress and is signed into law would require bipartisan support to get past the filibuster in the Senate. That is one reason CCL has always worked in a bipartisan way and believes that is the best strategy for passing effective federal climate legislation.
But can we trust an organization funded by corporate interests? Are these energy companies legitimately working to solve climate change? While it is easy to assume bad intent, I often return to CCL’s values: “We believe that people are good, and that democracy works. Our group is open to all who are serious about solving climate change. We believe that everyone is a potential ally.”
That doesn’t mean I put on blinders, or that I assume people have no self-interest, or that they share all my values. It means that even when we disagree and have differing values, I still think there are ways we can work together on solutions.
In fact, people have been asking for years, “How come the corporations aren’t putting their lobbying might behind solving climate change? It’s great to work on reducing your corporation’s carbon footprint, but we also need to change policy, and we need corporations not just to accept that policy, but to advocate for it.” CCL has been working for exactly this through our grasstops outreach and our Business Climate Leaders action team. It’s great to see the business community leaning in more on carbon pricing policy.
Yes, even the oil companies. Even though they have dragged their feet for decades and have an interest in resisting change, the simple fact is that most energy companies now accept that action on climate is inevitable, at the local, state, national and international level. With continued pressure, the potential exists for energy companies to be allies in solving climate change.
Regulations and liability
While CCL sees the Climate Leadership Council and Americans for Carbon Dividends as allies in pushing for climate solutions, their proposed policy is different from CCL’s. For instance, Carbon Fee and Dividend has a much more aggressively rising carbon price. Further, CF&D does not include any provisions for rolling back regulations or limiting climate-based litigation. So, while we disagree on these points, we choose to focus on our common ground of advocating for carbon pricing as an effective climate solution, and a full dividend to support American households.
Carbon pricing is effective
Some have responded to the AFCD by questioning whether revenue-neutral carbon pricing is an effective climate solution. Obviously that depends on the level of the carbon price and its rate of increase. The Climate Leadership Council’s policy would make a major dent in emissions, surpassing the Clean Power Plan and the U.S. commitments in Paris. But its price is too low to motivate the reductions that scientists say are essential to avert the worst of climate change.
Carbon Fee and Dividend on the other hand, with its $15/ton starting price and $10/year increase in price, would go much further in reducing emissions. Studies show it would put us on a path toward the 90% emissions reductions needed. Other policies would also be needed at the local, state, and federal level, but even without spending revenue on carbon reduction programs, CF&D would be a huge step toward solving climate change.
Is carbon fee and dividend really bipartisan?
Some also question how folks on the left should respond to the AFCD and the Climate Leadership Council who explicitly say they are making the conservative case for carbon dividends. Should progressives stretch to meet these conservatives, or should they be more cautious and reject revenue neutrality?
Interestingly, Democrats in Congress have already introduced revenue-neutral carbon pricing in Van Hollen and Beyer’s Cap and Dividend legislation. The House version has 36 cosponsors, including some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress (as rated by Govtrack). There are a lot of reasons for progressives to support a full dividend, especially the fact that the vast majority of low income households will come out ahead under such a program.
I think it is great for people to come to the table with a variety of options to solve climate change, as long as all sides come with a real intent to solve the problem and an openness to dialogue and compromise. Once the conversation is really focused on solutions, the bridge-building will really take off.
Is bipartisanship still possible?
But is that kind of bipartisan compromise aimed at the political center still possible given the current polarization in politics? Despite the overall polarization, we see climate change becoming less partisan in Congress, with 42 Democrats and 42 Republican members now in the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, and not just moderate Republicans in competitive districts. Though the caucus has not yet passed legislation, the difference in the dialogue from two years ago is immense. If there is any issue that can be shifted from a wedge issue to a bridge issue, where we can find a real bipartisan solution, maybe it is climate change.
People have always told CCL that its goals were impossible, often with clear and cogent rationale for why it will never work. And yet, when asked to articulate an alternative plan that is possible for passing significant national climate legislation, none have come up with a more viable alternative. So, while people will continue to be critical, we will continue to make progress, climbing the rungs of this impossible ladder, until sometime soon, when the impossible will suddenly become inevitable.
Tony Sirna is CCL’s Strategy Coordinator. He lives in Oakland, CA.