Cap and dividend might work

Posted April 12, 2010, at 6:49 p.m.

Now that the health care reform bill is finally passed, we can begin to attend to some of the other urgent matters that are waiting in the congressional legislative pipeline.

Legislation that effectively addresses the issue of climate change is the top of my list. There are two approaches as to how to reduce our contribution to the global levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The one we hear about all the time is cap- and-trade. I am dismayed that the alternative approach is rarely mentioned in the press, although our own Sen. Susan Collins along with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has introduced a bill employing this method.

This second approach is called cap and dividend. In this plan, carbon would be taxed, ton-by-ton, at the source (the mine, the port, the oil field). Seventy-five percent of the money collected by the government would, in the Collins-Cantwell bill, be returned to the citizens of this country. We would pay more for our gas, electricity and all other items that use materials that would be taxed. And we, all U.S. citizens, would receive a check in the mail to help us cope with this increase.

Those of us who are able and choose to, could reduce our use of such items and thus maximize the benefit of our dividend. The businesses and industries taxed, however, would be highly motivated to find clean ways of doing business. The amount of the carbon tax would gradually be increased, increasing the motivation of businesses and citizens alike to support the development and use of clean energy.

The remaining 25 percent of the taxes collected would go to supporting the development of those sources of clean energy. I love that Wall Street is not involved in this at all. And I love that we would be able to benefit financially from choices we make every day. That is the kind of motivation that makes sense to me — funda-mental and straightforward. And, besides my pocketbook, I will know that I am participating in turning our collective vehicle toward a sustainable future.

The cap-and-trade system that the House of Representatives passed and which Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman are about to press in the Senate has many disadvantages. I will mention just two. First off, it is not clear that it will do the job it says it will do. After long debate, I have concluded that the offsets that are allowed in the House bill make it a fraud. Getting someone else to reduce carbon emissions so you don’t have to is really double think. We all need to be reducing our carbon emissions. I have heard analysis of this system that makes it clear that it has loopholes the size of the hole on Old County Road in Rockland.

Even more disturbing is a factor I have just come to understand. Because this is an investment scheme (doesn’t that fact make you squirm, given our recent history?), there has to be a floor below which the market price in carbon credits cannot fall.

Emissions cannot go lower than this floor, because the price of permits on the market would crash, bringing down fossil fuel prices and again making it more economical for profit-maximizing businesses to burn them than to employ energy- efficient and renewable technology. That means that this floor is what controls the amount of carbon that is being withheld from discharge into the atmosphere.

As I understand it (and my authority here is James Hansen’s book, “Storms of My Grandchildren”), this would in effect mean that it wouldn’t matter whether I hang my clothes on the line instead of using my clothes dryer. Because, although I don’t use that coal-fired electricity, it is on the market waiting for someone else to use. To make a real difference in the future of our planet, we have to change the large industrial systems that are putting the greenhouse gases into the air.

I must tell you: I despair of our Congress passing legislation that does the job on this matter. The lines of collusion between corporations and our legislators is so thick that I often doubt that the common good will be served. However, our only hope is an awakened citizenry.

I am proud that Sen. Collins took the courageous step to co-sponsor the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal, or CLEAR, Act. I urge you to learn about this issue and the CLEAR Act. It could not be more important that we the people speak up. Let’s support Sen. Collins for taking this bold step. She needs to hear from us, as do our friends and neighbors.

Jean Matlack, who lives in Rockport, is an organizer with 350.org, a campaign aimed at effectively addressing climate change.

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