After a year of rising floodwaters and record forest fires, it has been distressing to watch the United States attend last week’s U.N. climate conference in Poland and deliver a rousing defense of – wait for it — fossil fuels.
The outrage is compounded by the revelation, via the New York Times, that the Trump administration’s rollback of automobile emissions standards follows a covert campaign by the nation’s oil industry. Marathon Petroleum, the country’s largest refiner, worked with a Koch-financed network to reverse the Obama administration’s efforts to roughly double new vehicles’ fuel efficiency by 2025.
In other words, this administration has chosen to protect Big Oil’s profits rather than our children’s and grandchildren’s futures – which are in increasing danger from a rapidly warming planet, according to a slew of hair-raising reports, including from the U.N. and the U.S. government itself.
“It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the Poland conference that saw the United States as an impediment rather than the vanguard we ought to be.
But here’s a flicker of hope.
The spark comes from U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a South Florida Democrat who’s witnessed the region’s “nuisance flooding,” even on sunny days. Deutch, committed to addressing the threat we face from sea-level rise, created the Climate Solutions Caucus two years ago with former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami. It now has 90 House members — 45 Republicans and 45 Democrats.
Deutch and a small bipartisan group, including Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Southwest Florida, two weeks ago introduced an ingenious bill that would impose a fee — not a tax — on carbon emissions. The proceeds would be returned to citizens as a dividend.
The fee would gradually increase the price of carbon products, like coal and petroleum. That would nudge consumers into using less and spur coal and oil companies to innovate clean-energy solutions. Pain to consumers would be negligible, because the higher prices at the pump would be offset – in many cases, more than offset — by the dividends sent to every household.
Supporters say the bill would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent within 10 years; 91 percent by 2050. That’s bigger than the U.S.’s commitment under the Paris climate agreement (the one President Trump vowed to quit).
“We are taking a monumental step forward in showing our colleagues and the country there is a bipartisan solution to climate change that addresses risks to our health, environment, and economy and puts a price on pollution to end our reliance on carbon,” Deutch told the editorial boards of The Palm Beach Post, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald. The newspapers, along with WLRN Public Radio, are collaborating on a project — The Invading Sea — to raise awareness about the threat of sea level rise to South Florida.
As a tradeoff, the bill would suspend federal environmental regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. The sponsors believe the pricing policy would achieve better results. Regulations for other pollutants such as sulfur and mercury would remain. If the dividend plan fails to achieve hoped-for carbon reductions, the regulations would return.
It’s a brilliant idea, but it faces strong headwinds.
In November, voters in Washington State rejected a carbon tax for the second time in two years. That effort wouldn’t have returned the money to citizens, but put it into transportation, energy efficiency and alternative energy projects. It lost after an oil industry-led opposition waged a $31 million campaign against.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing a backlash over his attempt to put a price on carbon pollution. People fear the effort will squeeze their pocketbooks while enriching government. And in France, a plan to increase fuel taxes by a climate-change conscious government went up in flames after protesters took to the streets.
Without question, Deutch’s bill would lead to higher fuel and energy costs, but the dividends would help all Americans offset those costs.
The bill stands little chance of becoming law in today’s Washington, even though the idea originally sprang from several elder Republican statesmen, including former Secretaries of State James Baker III and George Schultz.
But the idea could — and should — generate sustained attention after Democrats assume leadership of the House in January. Many of the incoming members, first-time candidates riding November’s blue wave of Democratic victories, are clamoring to shake up the status quo, with some calling for a sweeping “Green New Deal.”
“The status quo isn’t sustainable,” Deutch rightly says.
Because of melting ice sheets, South Florida politicians — on both sides of the aisle — are girding for a 2-foot rise in sea level over the next 40 years. And scientists say that’s a conservative estimate.
The annual Arctic Report Card released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the Arctic region has experienced a multi-year period of warmth “unlike any period on record” and the effects are cascading around the globe.
The U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment — quietly released on Black Friday — has described the rise of wildfires in the West, more record-breaking “nuisance flooding” events in South Florida and more disruptions in ocean fisheries. Absent a course correction, it suggests we face staggering effects on water, energy and human health.
Alarmingly, greenhouse gas emissions are growing like a “speeding freight train” because of a surging appetite for oil, the New York Times reports, referencing two peer-reviewed studies. Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018. Last year they rose 1.6 percent, ending a three-year plateau.
The president, meantime, has rolled back Obama-era restrictions on coal emissions. And at the global climate change summit, his representatives set up a trade-show exhibit promoting fossil fuels. “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability,” his top adviser on energy and climate, Wells Griffith, told the assemblage of 200 nations.
What a sorry statement from a country whose values have long inspired the world. The fact is, we don’t have to choose between a healthy economy or a healthy environment. As South Florida has shown, the business of sustainability creates economic prosperity for people who put their minds to it.
The clock is ticking down, but there is still time to do something to slow the acceleration of carbon emissions and keep the impact of climate change from growing worse.
Deutch’s bipartisan bill is a good place to start.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.