“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” said Mark Twain, in the early days of global warming, before anyone knew anything about it. Yes, it was happening then, but it was small, and the science to understand it hadn’t developed yet.
In 2011, scientific understanding has grown a lot, and so has the magnitude of the problem. Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air and in the oceans, is heating up the planet, acidifying the oceans, threatening the web of life on earth. Most people know we have to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Experts say if we can get CO2 down to 1980 levels we can return to a stable climate. To do that, fossil fuels must be replaced by other, clean sources of energy. The question is how.
We want to appeal to both sides of the aisle. I met with representatives from congressional offices a couple of months ago, and this is what Republicans told me they wanted in an energy bill for it to interest them: It must be market-based, domestic, revenue neutral, limit disruption to the economy and be effective. The Democrats were good with that.
Given those guidelines, I present the following solution, called “Carbon Fee and Dividend.”
First, the fee. Charge a $15 per ton fee for carbon emissions on all fossil fuels, charged at the mine, the well or the port of entry. Raise the fee $10 to $15 a year for about 10 years. The point is to raise the price of fossil fuels until they are more expensive than clean energy sources. It is done slowly, year by year, to allow businesses and individuals to plan and adjust to the change.
This will raise the cost of things we buy, since the cost of energy, for the time being, will be more. That’s where the rebate comes in. The money collected (estimated to be $80 billion the first year, or more than $250 per resident) is divided up evenly among the citizenry, and sent out as monthly “green” checks. The infrastructure is already in place (through the IRS) to handle it.
The rebate makes the proposal revenue neutral. People will be happy to get a check from the government. Most people will get back an amount equal to or greater than their increased expenses. The plan encourages fewer emissions because the smaller your carbon footprint, the more of that green check is cash in your pocket. There will be no burden on the poor because the poor can’t afford a large carbon footprint.
Will the price of American goods become uncompetitive? Not if we charge a fee on goods entering the market from countries that don’t have a similar fee, rebating the money to American companies exporting goods. The fee will encourage those countries to adopt a similar policy.
Extreme weather and the deteriorating oceans are reasons we have to price carbon, but in so doing, we can also stimulate the economy. By sending a clear, predictable price signal to investors, serious money will flow into the clean energy field. Lily Donge of Calvert Investments recently said that the S&P 500 is sitting on more than a trillion dollars in cash. “If there’s a price signal on carbon that unleashes even 10 percent of that, that would be more than $100 billion in new investment channeled toward clean energy.”
Carbon Fee and Dividend lets the market decide what forms of clean energy will replace fossil fuels. Whatever form it takes, the transition will create far more jobs than will be lost, by a factor of two, three or more, depending on the technology. As reported by the Bangor Daily News on July 12, the Brookings Institution recently reported green sector jobs already number 2.7 million nationally. Maine’s green sector, 12,000 strong now, could grow exponentially with large new investments, a welcome boost to a slow economy.
Carbon Fee and Dividend meets the criteria politicians told us they want, but politicians need citizen pressure applied to give them the courage to stand up to big energy companies who lobby them incessantly, and contribute mightily to their campaigns.
That’s what we can do about the weather.
Dan Slick is a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby.