How to solve climate change? There are a thousand answers

How to solve climate change? There are a thousand answers
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From storming the halls of Congress to striking from the halls of their schools, it seems the kids these days are ready for climate action. The outpouring of youth support for climate change reflects an important change in the national climate conversation.

Public hunger for action on climate is reaching an all-time high and climate change is featuring prominently in 2020 election conversations. The question for policymakers is no longer whether to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but instead about how to do it fast enough. Combating climate change will require action across every sector of the economy, from increasing the efficiency of buildings to developing new sources of energy. Proposals like the Green New Deal offer a vision of the carbon-free future in just a few short years. But how will we get there from here?   

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Dozens of lawyers have spent the last three years trying to answer this very question. A new “policy encyclopedia” provides more than 1,000 legal tools to lower emissions for every level of government and the private sector.

These tools span the ideological spectrum, meaning there’s a path forward no matter your politics. There are three primary pillars to successfully decrease emissions. First, we need to increase the efficiency of our energy systems, allowing us to do more with less energy. Then, we have to make electricity carbon-free, either via renewables or using carbon sequestration. And third, we must shift transportation from fossil fuels to clean alternatives.

With more than 1,000 potential paths forward, there is no excuse for inaction. 

But there are also a dozen different types of legal tools. Commonsense regulations are in the Trump administration’s crosshairs, but a future president could change that. Another approach that is gaining traction in some conservative circles is to leverage market forces and establish a price on carbon. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act has been introduced to Congress and 13 states have introduced carbon pricing legislation this year.

Another tool is removal of obstacles. Clean energy faces real hurdles to grow its market share, but there are many ways that governments can help grow the industry and create jobs in the process. To some degree, existing laws, particularly public laws concerning energy production, favor old sources of energy (fossil fuels), or some types of companies (utilities), over others. Rolling back entrenched subsidies (something small-government Republicans usually support) would level the playing field and enable renewable energy to compete. 

And still another tool is social equity. In any pathway forward, social equity, particularly for communities that are dependent on fossil fuel jobs and for communities that have been most harmed by fossil fuel pollution, is an indispensable element of any effort to address climate change.

The scale and complexity of deep decarbonization are enormous, but we have a simple message: Deep decarbonization is achievable in the United States using laws that exist or could be enacted. These legal tools can produce significant economic, social, environmental and national security benefits. 

Leaders at every level of government — and in the private sector — can take their pick of policy options. From the Green New Deal’s progressive platform for policies to the more modest and moderate carbon pricing options and everything in between, there are a thousand ways to solve climate change. It’s far past time for leaders to pick some.

John C. Dernbach and Michael B. Gerrard are professors of environmental law at, respectively, Widener University Commonwealth Law School and Columbia Law School. They are editors of the newly released book, “Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization.”