Hundreds of people gather outside City Hall in Portland to demand that leaders take action on climate change, Sept. 20, 2019. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Recently, the Orono Town Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the Maine congressional delegation to support enactment of a carbon fee and dividend to control greenhouse gas emissions. It urged speedy action appropriate to the gravity and urgency of the growing climate crisis. With this resolution, Orono joined other Maine municipalities that have passed similar resolutions, including Hampden, Bangor and Portland.

Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, is now the highest it has been in the past 800,000 years. Its rapid rise in the past 50 years has been accompanied by an alarming increase in global average air temperature. These increases are due to the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). But none of us lives in a global average temperature. The effects of global warming vary from place to place and involve all components of the climate system. In Maine, changes are likely to include increasing precipitation and a more unstable atmosphere with more intense storms.

Orono acted, in part, because its infrastructure and resources have been strained by increases in extreme storm and precipitation events affecting stormwater systems and road maintenance. Orono also is being affected by the spread of Lyme disease due to climate change. Less direct impacts include the warming, rising and acidifying of the Gulf of Maine, affecting coastal and fishing communities — trends expected to intensify. Elsewhere, climates are changing in different ways: droughts in some areas, wind-driven deluges in others. Economic strains radiate throughout the system. Expenditures must increase to keep up with impacts. Every Maine municipality is affected.

The solution? There are many: effective action can be taken by individuals, families, towns, states and nations. Solutions range from the cars we drive (electric?), to the electricity we use (solar, wind?), the way we heat our houses (heat pumps, geothermal?), the way we produce our food (minimal use of fossil fuel?) and where we produce it (close at hand?), and how much we recycle and reduce waste. But whether we succeed in this race against time depends in large part on government, as a major economic transformation is required.

The most effective and practical way to deal with this problem in the U.S is for the government to collect a fee on carbon that increases over time, to impose it on coal before it ships from the mine and on oil and natural gas before they are piped from the well. In this way, the price of all fossil fuels will go up whether used in transportation, manufacturing, electricity production, heating and other. This approach tips the competitive balance away from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy, and efficiently spurs the transformation needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What about the low-income person who has to pay more for gasoline, heating oil or natural gas? The carbon fee and dividend approach takes care of that crucial dilemma. Carbon fee and dividend legislation now before the House of Representatives (H.R.763) returns the fee money in equal monthly payments (“dividends”) to all households like Social Security checks. Most poor households will receive more in dividends than they spend on increased energy costs, and most middle income households will at least break even. Only wealthy profligate energy users will typically pay more for energy than they receive in dividends. This system is revenue-neutral: the total fees collected equal amounts paid out in dividends.

A pie in the sky? No. So far, 3,554 U.S. economists have signed a statement supporting carbon fee and dividend, including four former chairs of the Federal Reserve, 27 Nobel laureate economists, 15 former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers and two former secretaries of the Department of Treasury. When have so many economists ever agreed on anything?

No wonder the town of Orono is on board. How about your town? If you are a concerned citizen like me, contact your congressional representatives to urge a carbon fee and dividend as in H.R.763.

Ronald B. Davis of Orono is a research ecologist, naturalist, and teacher who retired from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and School of Biology and Ecology in 2003. The opinions he expresses here are his own, and not those of the University of Maine.