It’s a huge topic, but my goal here is simply to offer foundational support for new and old members who plan to work on the issue. To that end, I emphasize the rationale for climate policy in ways that hopefully complement policy choices.
A few inconvenient truths make climate change an issue that must be addressed by public policy.
To help nature, you must take account of human nature: U.S.-style capitalism and human nature intersect in a way that makes pushing back on climate change really hard. People naturally discount the future in favor of the present. Denial of a tangible pleasure today in exchange for “decarbonization” doesn’t come naturally, especially with gas at $2.40 a gallon (national average as of this writing) and that sleek SUV beckoning you to take the wheel.
It therefore takes a forward-looking government — not exactly what we’ve got at the moment — to worry more about our future viability than we would on our own. If that sounds unachievable, consider that food, medicines, cars, cigarettes and everything else we use and consume were not initially regulated to protect us in ways we take for granted. And trust me, those industries did not welcome the oversight any more than fossil-fuel extractors do today.
True, getting tainted romaine lettuce off the shelves invokes an urgency that slowly rising temperatures do not. And yet, we’re already feeling the effect of climate change through extreme heat, drought, wildfires and more intense storms. Remarkably, even agencies within the Trump administration conclude “that the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.”
Externalities: A related rationale is that of economic externalities. Why do the Koch brothers fight so hard against climate measures? Because their profits depend on not having to pay the broad social costs of the environmental degradation to which they’re contributing. Climate policy is necessary to “internalize the externalities,” i.e., to direct the costs back to those responsible for them.
If you think your only job is to convince climate deniers, I’ve got bad news for you: No question, educating the public and elevating real over fake science is crucial. But for many deniers, this just isn’t about science. It’s about their side vs. the rest. Moreover, even if everyone accepted the conclusions of the climate scientists, we’d still be left with the 1,000-gigaton question:
What to do about it? The deeper, weedier answer to this question involves learning from writers such as David Roberts (and the scientists with whom he interacts) about the full spate of interventions and their effectiveness. Here, I’d like to consider two broad intervention bins: taxing carbon and subsidizing/incentivizing the use of its alternatives.
While economists naturally gravitate toward a tax on fossil fuels, many others do not. Washington state may not be quite the liberal bastion some folks think it is, but the fact that ballot initiatives to tax carbon have failed twice there tells you something about the weight of this lift. French populists just rioted over an increase in their fuel tax (that this proposal coincided with cuts in wealth taxes is not immaterial). What’s so great and terrible about carbon taxes?
On the plus side, they’re an efficient, simple way to bring the social cost of burning fossil fuels closer to its market cost, and, unlike more complicated regulations such as cap-and-trade, they don’t make any assumptions about how much carbon production to allow.
On the negative side, like any sales tax on necessities, they’re regressive: Lower-income people spend a larger share of their income on energy than do the rich. However, most plans rebate enough of the revenue from the tax to hold low-income households harmless (at least). Even so, it’s a tax, and it thereby faces the unwritten — and completely dysfunctional — rule that taxes are a one-way ratchet: They can only go down.
Eventually, that constraint will have to be broken, but alongside efforts to more accurately price carbon, there’s increasing interest in subsidizing alternatives, investing (public and private) in green tech, and enforcing renewable standards (e.g., where a state demands that some percent of future energy use come from renewable sources). Incoming congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is proposing an ambitious Green New Deal comprising such investments and wants House Democrats to convene a select committee to get the ball rolling.
These are smart ideas that, at least for the foreseeable future, are likely to be more popular than carbon taxes. Every new legislator with ambition in this space should learn about the details (e.g., energy analyst Hal Harvey points out that when setting renewable standards, “Don’t set a quantitative target, set a rate of improvement”).
And no one should fall prey to claims like the one recently made by Marco Rubio that taking such actions will “destroy the economy.” Obviously, that’s backward, and I’m not just thinking about potential jobs generated by a Green New Deal. I’m also thinking about the fact that private markets are solidly in the game, with $12 trillion of U.S. assets in sustainable investment. According to Bloomberg News, “Three companies bid a record-shattering $405.1 million to nab U.S. rights to build offshore wind farms near Massachusetts on Friday, a testament to the surging appeal of renewable power and investors’ confidence in state demand for it.”
In other words, even if carbon taxes aren’t exactly the flavor of the month, exciting options abound, and trust me when I tell you, incoming members: There’s a big, hungry, appreciative group of us awaiting your arrival. Welcome, and let’s get to work!