Is Political Action on Climate Change Starting to Brew in the U.S.?

Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement is probably one of the stupidest, most short-sighted and self-defeating moves for the long-term wellbeing of the United States that a U.S. President has ever made. The amount of damage that climate change will bring to our environment, our economy and our health if left unchecked will be overwhelming, and the reality that is being brought to us by events around the world and is being told to us by scientists is that climate change is “real, serious, and immediate and … this problem poses significant threats” to our future.

However, recent news on the political activities of several groups in Washington D.C. gives some hope that now, more than ever, liberals and conservatives are coalescing around the need to act on climate change, they are building support among conservative politicians and they are building strategies that both Democrats and Republicans can get behind.

The first article is about the Climate Leadership Council, a group of conservative heavyweight former government advisers, as well as prestigious scientists and major companies, that is pushing the White House to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax:

The second is an NPR article about the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which is growing in Republican membership (it has gained 19 Republican members in the first 6 months of this year) and is trying to holistically and open-mindedly analyze the problem of climate change and envision solutions to it:

The Climate Leadership Council approach seems particularly promising because it includes the support of a some highly experienced, influential conservative leaders — “two former Secretaries of State, two former Secretaries of Treasury, and two former chairmen of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors” from the past three Republican presidencies, as well as highly respected scientists and economists such as Stephen Hawking, Steven Chu and Martin Feldstein. If anyone can convince President Trump to act on climate change, it’s these guys. Their solution is a revenue-neutral carbon tax, i.e. a carbon tax whereby 100% of the proceeds would go back to individuals in the form of a monthly or yearly rebate. Having such a price on carbon is enormously important because it would make clean energy solutions even more competitive with fossil fuels and could enable a whole host of carbon-saving solutions that are currently not quite cost competitive (but could be soon).

The article also brings up another great point, which is that legally the Trump administration has to act to regulate carbon emissions following Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) and the Environmental  Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) own endangerment finding about greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, Trump’s EPA could seek to undo the endangerment finding, but right now they are legally obligated to act to reduce carbon emissions — and what more of a “populist” way to do this than a 100% rebatable carbon tax?

The only problem with this is that a carbon tax is not the end-all, be-all solution to climate change. Bill McKibben summed it up nicely in an article on Yale Environment 360: if we had instituted a slowly-rising carbon tax 30 years ago, it might have been enough to stop climate change. Now that we have waited so long, though, a carbon tax is a necessary but not sufficient action to halt global warming. In reality, we need a whole toolkit of actions, e.g. better fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, more energy efficient buildings, subsidizing clean energy and energy storage, preventing deforestation and supporting reforestation, etc. This is what Ted Halstead (the founder of the Climate Leadership Council) in his TED talk does not seem to get. A carbon tax cannot simply replace all other regulations (as his point #3 says). This is pure folly. Even if a carbon tax gets us all the way to our Paris Climate Agreement commitment (an impressive claim), this would still only get us halfway to our goal of avoiding 2 ° C of global climate change. And his statement that a carbon tax would be a “Killer App”? Maybe. But what we really need is a whole set of killer apps to properly tackle climate change and do so in a way that is fair and beneficial to the world’s poorest, who are being hurt the most by climate change.

Second, the work of the Climate Solutions Caucus may seem limited in its effectiveness in the short term (i.e. they have no immediate climate change solutions), but what they are doing is essentially opening up people’s thinking around climate change and its possible solutions — and God knows there are Republicans in Congress who need this even more than our President. In bringing together Republicans and Democrats to think through this issue, they are also shifting the debate and thinking toward “using our tradition of American ingenuity, innovation, and exceptionalism, to create and support economically viable, and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and effects” of climate change. This is the kind of thinking that Republicans should be hearing, because the debate right now shouldn’t be about whether climate change is real or how uncertain the projections are (hint: not very) but rather how can we mitigate climate change in the way that is most beneficial to our economy, our environment and the American people — and that unlocks our potential for creativity, work, innovation and leadership.

It is very clear that the solution(s) to climate change in the U.S. are going to require the support of both Democrats and Republicans. There is nothing in conservative ideology that says we shouldn’t act collectively to avoid a common threat and significant damage to our quality of life. It is good to know that there are those on both sides of the aisle who are working to lay the ground work for rapid and successful action on climate change. If you want to read a realistic theory/scenario of how Congress could rapidly act on climate change, read this excellent article in Yale Environment360 on conservatives who are switching to the side of climate action. The fact is, things can change very suddenly and very drastically in our politics. We need people to be prepared to implement a shared vision and strategy and, hopefully, a whole set of killer apps to tackle climate change.

Featured image: Time by pepey. Created by Ferdi Rizkiyanto, copyrighted under Creative Commons 3.0.

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