On Earth Day, President Joe Biden promised that the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.
It was a welcome statement, even if it was only a first step towards what is needed to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.
As this year’s Earth Day approaches, Biden’s Build Back Better bill — which could have gone at least in part toward achieving that goal — is stalled in Congress.
Worse still, the war in Ukraine and inflation in the United States have made reducing emissions politically less palatable today. The knee-jerk reaction of political leaders to produce more oil and gas to drive down energy prices may have been predictable, but it will only compound the problem of ever-rising emissions.
The expansion of drilling and fracking does nothing to meet near-term energy needs; on the contrary, it further locks the economy into a long-term dependence on fossil fuels.
A much better approach to preventing autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin from waging fossil fuel-funded wars – while strengthening that country’s national security and bolstering its energy independence – would be to accelerate the transition to a clean household.
The science couldn’t be clearer. Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, issued the latest in a series of dire warnings about the climate crisis.
The report described the steadily worsening effects of climate change – including wildfires, drought, extreme weather, floods and rising sea levels – and called for immediate action.
“Any further delay…will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable world for all,” the report said.
Economists and climate experts, including members of the IPPC, agree that the fastest and most effective way to reduce global warming emissions is to levy a tax on fuels fossils.
In the words of climatologist James Hansen, “as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, we will continue to burn them”. Paul Krugman and other economists have made the same point.
Fossil fuels don’t have to be the cheapest source of energy; wind and solar are already becoming cheaper in many places. But US government policy toward big oil, including various forms of subsidies, has continued to make it difficult for renewables to compete.
Pricing fossil fuels to reflect their true cost to the planet and its people would mean removing subsidies and levying some sort of tax on coal, oil and natural gas.
A policy known as the carbon royalty and dividend, described by Hansen in his 2009 book “The Storms of My Grandchildren,” would impose a small but steadily increasing royalty on fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon released when these fuels are burned. (Charges could start as low as $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, which equates to about 14 cents per gallon of gasoline.)
To ensure that the burden does not fall disproportionately on low-income households, tax revenue would be refunded equally to all Americans in the form of a monthly check or direct deposit.
Studies have shown that the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution would get more in “carbon cashback” or dividends than they would pay in increased costs.
Another feature of the policy is a carbon border adjustment to protect US manufacturers from imports from countries without a comparable carbon tax – and to encourage other countries to follow suit.
Canada and the European Union are already considering such tariffs on imports into their jurisdictions, including from the United States.
Bills calling for such a policy have been proposed in several sessions of Congress. Unfortunately, the political will to get them across the finish line has not materialized.
Congress now has a small window of opportunity to pass a price on carbon emissions through the budget reconciliation process. Although the House version of the Build Back Better bill does not contain a carbon price, the Senate could include one in its version.
Failing that, it will be up to Biden to do what he can through executive orders.
May God help us and all our grandchildren if we waste this opportunity.
Judy Peres volunteers with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for carbon pricing legislation in the United States and around the world.