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What’s the likelihood Congress will curb greenhouse gas emissions?

Posted May 28, 2013, at 1:03 p.m.

I grew up in tornado alley. In 1958, a tornado ripped through my hometown in Kansas, passing within a block of our house, devastating 40 blocks and killing 13 people, including some who had taken shelter in an elementary school. For those in tornado alley, it is easy to conclude that tornadoes like that in Moore, Oklahoma, are nothing new. Indeed, Tom Karl, director of the National Climate Data Center, observed that “several studies do show that environmental conditions favorable for convection [leading to tornadoes] are more likely with more greenhouse gases, but results are not conclusive.”

But he went on to say that “heavy and extreme precipitation events often associated with thunderstorms and convection are increasing and have been linked to human-induced changes in atmospheric composition.” Whatever the verdict on the relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of tornadoes, the evidence is strong that extreme weather events have been increasing and will continue to do so unless we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

“2012 was the second costliest year in U.S. history for climate-related disasters” according to insurance industry estimates cited by the Natural Resources Defense Council, with taxpayers picking up three-quarters of the cost. We spent more of the 2012 federal budget on climate disruption costs than on education or transportation. And yet our politicians are acting as if the problem of global warming has gone away.

I was invited to Harvard University in February for a symposium on the politics of global warming. The focus of the symposium was on the findings of a couple studies of the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House of Representatives in 2009 but failed to pass the Senate. Why did this legislation fail? And what are the prospects for future efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions?

Researchers concluded that the cap-and-trade bill failed because the strategy that advocates employed relied on making insider bargains among powerful legislators, energy companies and Washington-based environmental organizations, while neglecting grass-roots movements. The result was a bill that included giveaways to electric utilities and policies that were too complicated to be understood by ordinary citizens.

Grass-roots environmental organizations did not rally behind the bill. Tea party activists, by contrast, rallied against the bill, and hoped-for Republican supporters of the legislation, such as Arizona’s Sen. John McCain, melted away. The failure of cap-and-trade was contrasted with the success of Obamacare, where the strategy included working with grass-roots organizations that rallied in support of the bill even though it fell short of what they had hoped for.

This analysis suggests that future national legislative efforts to limit our greenhouse gas emissions will require more coordination with grass-roots movements, like 350.org, and laws that such movements can understand, explain to the public and rally behind. One idea endorsed by America’s leading climate scientist, James Hanson, is to impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels and carbon intensive imports, sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels and make alternative energy competitive in the market.

Because a rise in energy prices will be a burden on low- and middle-income families, Hanson proposes returning 100 percent of the revenue in the form of regular per capita dividends to all legal residents. Sixty or 70 percent of households — those middle- and low-income households that consume less energy — would benefit financially from such a tax and dividend policy. A variation of Hanson’s proposal, capping carbon emissions, auctioning emission permits and returning most of the revenue to citizens as dividends — known as “cap-and-dividend” — has already been proposed by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, in the Senate. So some such law has the potential for bipartisan support.

It is unrealistic to expect such legislation to pass the Congress before 2014 or 2016, the next opportunities to elect legislators who recognize the gravity of the problem. But now is the time to generate public discussion of the idea, so it can become an issue in the next round of elections. This raises the question of how to keep global warming in the public eye when there is no pending legislation.

If monster tornadoes, unprecedented destructive hurricanes and extreme droughts and wildfires are not enough, concerned citizens can join efforts to turn the tide against global warming by opposing exploitation of Canada’s tar sands and pumping of the crude oil through Maine or the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. They can support movements for governments, colleges and pension funds to divest holdings in fossil fuel companies. And they can urge the president to take such administrative action as is within his power to reduce carbon emissions.

These are some of the actions that those of us who can remember when the price of gasoline was less than 20 cents a gallon, and extreme weather was nothing but a natural event, can do for future generations so that they, too, can enjoy a habitable planet.

Michael Howard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine. His current research is on just sharing of the burdens of climate change. He is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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