Thirty years ago today (June 23, 1988), as Washingtonians sweltered, James Hansen told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” Hansen was the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and his warning landed at the top of the next morning’s New York Times.
Hansen, and many others, might have thought that over the next three decades we would spring into action to protect the only planet we have. In fact, we have made scant progress. The threat has accelerated, and we have failed to muster the political will to counter it.
But could we be on the verge of a breakthrough? The number-one priority is persuading Republicans on Capitol Hill that action is needed and that they can support such action without losing their jobs. This week former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Pascagoula, Mississippi, and John Breaux, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana, announced that they had created a new group called Americans for Carbon Dividends (AFCD).
As The Wall Street Journal reported, the group plans to put financial, advertising and lobbying muscle behind a policy proposed last year that called for taxing carbon emissions and returning the revenue as a dividend to Americans. Championing that idea were Republican stalwarts George Shultz, James Baker, Henry Paulsen, and others. AFCD’s high-profile supporters include Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, both of whom chaired the Federal Reserve.
“The tide is turning on the realization that something needs to be done in this area,” said Lott. “And the dividend changes everything. The money goes back to the people instead of into the dark, deep hole of the federal government.”
As he and Breaux put it in an op-ed titled “Here’s How to Break the Impasse on Climate” in The New York Times, “We can do this…. This is the only realistic, workable path now open to us if we want to solve one of the most daunting challenges of our time.”
The Journal’s Bradley Olson and Timothy Puko wrote, “There are signs that some in the Republican Party may be warming to some sort of climate legislation. A Climate Solutions Caucus in the House has drawn 39 Republican members since its creation two years ago. An array of U.S. corporations, many of which give to Republicans through affiliated PACs, urged President Trump not to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, which he did last year.
“What’s more, younger Republicans are supportive of addressing climate change, according to the Pew Research Center. ‘Young Republicans want action on climate change, and the party has to bring solutions to the table,’ said Kiera O’Brien, 20, president of Harvard University’s Republican club, one of a number of right-leaning university groups that have come out in favor of the ‘carbon dividends’ plan.”
Meantime, there is growing interest in carbon pricing at the state level, with more than one-fifth of U.S. states considering bills on carbon fees and dividends in the last year, Kevin Kennedy and Christina DeConcini noted in a blog on the World Resource Institute’s website. The Massachusetts Senate passed a carbon-pricing bill June 14.
Even in Texas, a state famous for its oil and gas, there are hopeful signs. The City Council in Denton, located 40 miles north of Dallas and home to 300 natural gas wells, voted, 6-1, to obtain ALL of its power from renewable energy by 2020. The Council concluded that it was simply smart economics. Most people probably would be surprised to learn that 18 percent of the energy generated in Texas last year came from wind and solar power.
So yes, the climate change challenge is daunting, but momentum for enactment of a carbon fee is building. The American people need to tell Congress to climb on board.