Solving climate change the American way
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Global warming is an existential crisis. The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that global warming will threaten the prosperity and security of not only every American, but people around the world.

To address this threat with the seriousness and analytical clarity that it deserves we have to focus on one core goal: reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This comes with acknowledging four core realties: First, we should not make action on climate harder to solve by linking it to other issues of inequality or injustice. This will only delay real action on climate and time is our enemy.  When John F. Kennedy said we should send someone to the moon, he didn’t tie it to unrelated social or economic policies. He marshalled significant resources and talent and had a laser-like focus on the goal. Second, we need to propose solutions that don’t radically disrupt the entire economy, or shift all of the burdens to the poor or working class. Focusing on ideas that many in the country oppose will only delay real action on climate. Third, we have to acknowledge that solving the climate crisis involves transitioning off fossil fuels over time, not immediately eliminating fossil fuels. While many don’t like to admit it, fossil fuels produce 80 percent of the world’s energy.  Currently, there are not enough alternative energy sources to transition off fossil fuels in the short term.

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Making this transition harder is the tremendous population and economic growth occurring across Asia and Africa, which will only create more demand for energy. The question, therefore, must be, how do we decarbonize fossil fuels, while simultaneously increasing renewables?  Finally, and most importantly, American innovation must be central to the strategy of solving global warming.

Based on these realties, the United States should pursue the following national strategy. First, pass a carbon tax-dividend law, similar to the bipartisan bill I lead in the Congress.  The American people will accept this approach and this alone will reduce emissions 90 percent by 2050.  A coalition of Democrats and coastal Republicans can pass this law.  Second, significantly increase investment in basic energy research around storage, transmission, carbon capture and advanced nuclear. We fundamentally need new technologies to solve this problem and the United States must – and can - lead in “cracking the code” on these technologies.

We see the benefits of innovation with the first “Allam Cycle” natural gas facility that opened in Houston last year, creating the first zero emissions natural gas plant.  Finally, we need to create a market for negative emission technologies, including Direct Air Capture Technology (DAC).  These are machines and methods that extract carbon from the atmosphere and pump it back into the earth. They exist today, but they are too expensive and not at scale.  Estimates indicate that they currently cost rough $600 a metric ton and the social cost of carbon is now estimated to be roughly $48 a metric ton. This problem can be solved by American innovation.  Reforestation efforts and planting trees simply won’t be enough for a problem on this scale. If we create a market for these technologies – like we did for wind and solar – the private innovation economy will drive down the cost. 

According to Professor Stephen Pacala, the Chair of the National Academy of Sciences report on Negative Emissions Technology, “Although there has been a revolution in expensive zero-emissions energy technology, we still don’t have alternatives for 15-20% of the nation’s emissions – for example a large fraction of the agricultural emissions that are required to produce the nation’s food. These recalcitrant emissions will have to be offset by removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Existing methods of CO2 removal are limited, but would be up to the job if we could bring down the cost of direct air capture machines, something that market competition is ideally suited to do.”

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To create the market, we can eliminate the current subsidies for fossil fuels and instead use that approximate $5 billion per year to create an economically viable market for negative emission technology, including DAC, through an auction of captured carbon. This will unleash innovation and lead to the development of less costly carbon capture technologies, allowing for sequestration to be more widely used. By pairing the NET investment with a carbon tax, implementing the carbon capture technology will become more affordable than paying the carbon tax.  

Once we get to $100-200 a metric ton, they can be deployed everywhere to literally pull carbon out of the atmosphere.  This isn’t “clean coal” this is something drastically more effective. These technologies will become the most valuable technologies in the world and the U.S. should invest in them, own them, and use them to both get our country and the entire world to net zero emissions.

Americans are tired of leaders fighting with each other rather than working together on solutions. If we work together, we can solve the problem of global warming the same way we put a man on the moon and created the internet: by harnessing the power of innovation and intellectual capital.  That’s a goal all Americans should embrace.

John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyInslee unveils plan to fight fossil fuel pollution 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown Young activists press for change in 2020 election MORE is a Democratic candidate for president and a former member of Congress and entrepreneur.