The most powerful tool in the climate toolbox

The most powerful tool in the climate toolbox
© Getty Images

Ten Democrats running for president are preparing to take the stage for a CNN climate crisis town hall. Most have already issued extensive climate plans that include bold pronouncements on the scale of the threat and the need to act. Yet, many of these candidates have also been uncomfortable speaking directly about the most powerful tool in the climate solutions toolbox: requiring corporations to pay for their carbon pollution. 

That needs to change.

Climate change is a five-alarm emergency that requires a five-alarm response. A strong and smartly crafted plan to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for their pollution is good policy and good politics.

ADVERTISEMENT

Making corporations pay for their carbon emissions is especially important given the scale and speed of action necessary to replace entrenched fossil fuel infrastructure with cleaner, job-creating alternatives.

As long as corporations are allowed to pollute for free, the pursuit of profits will be a heavy drag on state and local initiatives to curb carbon pollution. Recent emissions trends underscore the point. Despite enormous progress by individual cities and states, nationwide carbon emissions increased in 2018.

Fees on corporate carbon pollution can work powerfully to enhance the many additional climate initiatives that are needed to adequately respond to the climate emergency.

Public investment in clean energy infrastructure will have a greater impact once private investment flows to the same projects instead of to highly polluting alternatives.

Clean energy research and development and energy efficiency programs will get more bang for the buck once their carbon-cutting benefits are valued in the marketplace, making clean and efficient investments more profitable.  

And clean air and water regulations will become more effective as corporations seek out alternatives to fossil fuels, cutting not only carbon but also other harmful pollutants and toxins.

ADVERTISEMENT

New ideas are making carbon pricing proposals even better. For example, smart proposals have been put forth to ensure the environmental integrity of any pricing system for corporate carbon pollution, ensuring America achieves clear, ambitious targets for cutting emissions.

Despite their merits, corporate carbon fees are often seen as a political nonstarter. That may have been true in years past, but change is in the air.

A growing portion of the public is fed up with the injustice as the costs of climate change are borne by families, farmers, small businesses and taxpayers while corporate polluters pay nothing.

Polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that a majority of the public in every congressional district supports requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax.

Fees on corporate carbon pollution can be made more popular by returning the revenues to the American people. Under this approach, every American would receive an equal check, or “carbon dividend.” Unlike most fiscal policies, a carbon dividend would only give one percent of the revenue to “The One Percent.” The rest will go to the people who need it most.

A carbon dividend offers a promising kitchen-table economic appeal for voters. Even GOP whisperer and pollster Frank Luntz has become a believer. His polling shows that the public supports a carbon dividend approach by a 4-to-1 margin. Young GOP voters particularly support the idea (by a 6-to-1 margin).

Additional measures can boost the appeal of a carbon fee. 

Charging a fee on the carbon content of imports can protect the competitiveness of American companies.

Setting aside a portion of revenues from the corporate carbon fees can create new economic opportunities for workers. These investments can be targeted where they are needed most, including communities that have been hit hard by toxic pollution, regions on the frontlines of climate change impacts and workers most likely to be affected by the transition to a clean economy.

All told, shifting politics and emerging policy ideas are injecting new life in an old idea. Democrats would be smart to call for fair and effective fees on corporate carbon pollution as a powerful part of their climate action plans.

Jeremy Symons is a consultant at Symons Public Affairs and writer on climate change, energy policy, and politics. He previously worked as vice president for political affairs at Environmental Defense Fund and as deputy staff director on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.