Emerging policy consensus on climate action

Emerging policy consensus on climate action
© Greg Nash

The pace of global climate action has picked up dramatically over the past year. There’s little doubt that record-breaking wildfires, extreme weather, and rising sea levels have all played a role — as have dire reports by scientists warning of an ever-decreasing window to act. Meanwhile, millions from our youth community have taken to the streets in protest, while governments in 23 countries, including the U.K. and Canada, have declared climate emergencies

Adding to the maelstrom, lawsuits against fossil fuel corporations have produced evidence of intentional deceit and disinformation to stall climate action for decades. 

All this at a time when national polls show that 80 percent of American voters want Congress to put politics aside and reach a bipartisan climate solution. Consequently, there are now 10 bills before Congress proposing to put a price on carbon emissions, four of which have bipartisan sponsorship.

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Coupled with heightened concern is a growing understanding that individual actions to reduce our “carbon footprint,” such as installing solar panels, driving electric cars, and purchasing local food, are not end-all solutions.

Climate activist Bill McKibben asserts, “The most important thing an individual can do is be less of an individual. Join together with other people in movements large enough to effect changes in policy and economics that might move the system enough to matter. You can’t do it anymore, one light bulb, one vegan dinner, at a time.”

Today a consensus is emerging in support of a national climate program to drastically reduce emissions, spur investments in clean energy, and provide protection and economic justice for families coping with increased energy costs. 

And there is a policy framework to achieve this and incentivize other nations to participate. Scientists, economists, business leaders, politicians, and activists are finding common ground around a few core policy options.

Conservative free-market thinkers and liberals alike agree that we need to end subsidies for coal, oil, and gas companies. They instead re-direct those funds to support research and development of carbon-neutral alternatives as well as help retrain workers in affected industries. 

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The International Monetary Fund estimates the total value of annual direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amounts to over $600 billion in the U.S. and nearly $5 trillion globally. It makes little sense to pursue a phase-out of fossil fuels without first curtailing these subsidies. 

Pundits and elected officials are also finding agreement around the importance of a “price on carbon” policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. 

Leading economists have long identified such policies as the most economically efficient way to address climate change since they do not require resource-intensive command-and-control oversight and compliance with emissions standards. 

Instead, they allow fossil fuels to be priced out of the market over time by charging carbon-extractive industries a pollution fee that affords “green” technology a competitive advantage. 

In effect, such a policy decreases the demand for carbon-intensive products and helps burgeon the renewable energy sector. To date, over 3,500 prominent economists have signed a statement attesting to the merit of such policy. The overwhelming support from economists is also a healthy counterweight to the misnomer that climate action will harm the economy.

A key issue regarding carbon pricing has to do with the government’s use of carbon tax dollars. While some contend that such funds should be allocated to subsidize renewable energy projects or aid specific sectors of society, an increasingly popular option is to distribute such funds in the form of an equally sized monthly dividend to all citizens in the country. 

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this latter option would deliver economic justice to low-income communities, retain long-lasting public support, and require no expansion of government. 

Such policy is in stark contrast to that which triggered “yellow vest” protests in France, where a climate policy failed to consider low-income and rural households. In the present case, many communities concerned about economic justice for low- and middle-income families are, embracing carbon fee and dividend policy. 

When discussing climate solutions, we cannot ignore the “global” nature of the problem, which renders action by the U.S. alone insufficient. Carbon pricing proposals, therefore, include a “carbon border tariff.” This tariff would protect American businesses by crediting them on their exports to nations that do not have carbon fees and placing a price on imports by such countries. 

This also creates a strong incentive for U.S. trading partners to adopt similar policy — since they could avoid the tariff by doing so. Importantly, the international adoption of carbon pricing would result in global greenhouse gas reductions of the timescale and magnitude needed to meet climate change mitigation targets.

A noteworthy example of a carbon pricing policy that is under consideration by the U.S. Congress is the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. It contains all key aspects discussed thus far and is perhaps the most likely piece of climate policy to attract members of Congress and the public from across the aisle. 

Whether or not such policy becomes law will, of course, depend on public support. Thus, phone calls and letters to Congress, along with other modes of civic engagement, will remain essential if we’re to achieve such climate policy in 2020 ultimately. 

Shahir Masri, Sc.D., is an air pollution scientist at the University of California at Irvine, and also teaches at the Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University. He is the author of "Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter at @ShahirMasri.

Robert Taylor is a journalist whose research and published work centers on environmental issues. He earned a BA in economics from the University of Delaware, worked as an economic analyst for a major oil company, and was a successful business owner.