Send Congress to the Beach

Members of Congress have many invitations to go to nice places, a number of them in the Sunshine State. Someone needs to get them to Miami Beach, fast. Granted, putting that many people on planes would run up a serious carbon budget, but after a couple of hours on the ground (in waterproof boots), it would be a whole lot tougher for any of them to call climate change a “hoax.”

In the latest New Yorker (Dec. 21 & 28) Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about a couple of trips she took there. The first visit was in late September, when the tides were especially high, and many streets were submerged. This trip wasn’t during a hurricane or even a rain storm; the weather was beautiful.

For perspective, she pointed out that about 20,000 years ago, during the coldest stretch of the most recent ice age, Miami Beach was 15 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The future of tourism didn’t look too promising. Today it’s an island, just across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami. As the Greenland ice sheet continues to melt, it’s unclear how much longer any of Miami Beach’s streets will be above water.

On her second trip, Kolbert visited a Miami neighborhood named Shorecrest. She was looking at streets submerged under water backing up from storm drains because the bay couldn’t accept it. She was with a researcher from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who told her, “The infrastructure we have is built for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.”

To be sure, the next Einstein might figure out a way to stop the melting. Or maybe the next Edison will discover some other fix. But anyone counting on those breakthroughs should not be making the big decisions for us on Capitol Hill or anywhere else.

Kolbert didn’t explore the impacts that the rising sea levels will have on the business community, but you can start with the hotels that line the coast. As much as $4 billion in taxable real estate in South Florida could be wiped out by a one-foot rise in sea level, according to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. Sea levels in the area are projected to rise between nine inches and two feet by 2060, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says.

Once our lawmakers return from this field trip, they should start debating legislation that would create a carbon fee. They could make it revenue-neutral, thus creating a large revenue flow that could be put to constructive use. We suggest applying half of that money to reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent. This rate is the highest in the industrialized world, and it is encouraging major corporations like Pfizer to move their headquarters—and taxable profits—outside the United States. A $35-per-ton levy, which would be a sensible starting point, equates to about 32 cents per gallon of gasoline. To offset these slightly higher energy costs, half the proceeds could be refunded to low- and middle-income consumers.

A late-November New York Times-CBS News poll found that most Americans, including Republicans, now believe that the climate is changing and want our government to take action. A survey by three GOP pollsters in September showed that 54 percent of conservative Republicans would support a carbon fee if the proceeds were rebated.

This free-market approach would create jobs, increase the rate of GDP growth, and allow energy generators and businesses the certainty needed to make sound usiness expansion decisions. It also could create momentum for more comprehensive tax reform.

Carbon fees can work, and that’s why they are earning greater support from the business community and elsewhere. British Columbia has had one since 2008. It has reduced fossil fuel consumption by 9 percent, while use in the rest of that country has risen. Meantime, British Columbia’s GDP growth has outperformed Canada’s.

Experts who have done the arithmetic report that even if no nation falls short or cheats on its pledge, the sum of all the Paris conference pledges will produce only half the emissions reductions required to keep average global temperatures below the two-degree increase most scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophic damage. A carbon fee would enable us to do better than that.

Miami Beach is the canary in the coal mine. It is telling our elected leaders to act -- now.