Hansen: Obama's Second Chance on the Predominant Moral Issue of This Century
President Obama, finally, took a get-involved get-tough approach to
negotiations on health care legislation and the arms control treaty
with Russia -- with success. Could this be the turn-around for what
might still be a great presidency?
The predominant moral issue of the 21st century, almost surely, will
be climate change, comparable to Nazism faced by Churchill in the 20th
century and slavery faced by Lincoln in the 19th century. Our fossil
fuel addiction, if unabated, threatens our children and grandchildren,
and most species on the planet.
Yet the president, addressing climate in the State of the Union, was
at his good-guy worst, leading with "I know that there are those who
disagree..." with the scientific evidence. This weak entrée, almost
legitimizing denialists, was predictably greeted by cheers and hoots
from well-oiled coal-fired Congressmen. The president was embarrassed
and his supporters cringed.
This is not the 17th century, when "beliefs" trumped science,
forcing Galileo to recant his understanding of the solar system. The
president should unequivocally support the climate science community,
which is under politically orchestrated assault on the legitimacy of
its scientific assessments. If he needs reassurance or cover, the
president can ask for a prompt report from the National Academy of
Sciences, established by Abraham Lincoln for advice on technical
Why face the difficult truth presented by the climate science? Why
not use the president's tack: just talk about the need for clean energy
and energy independence? Because that approach leads to wrong policies,
ineffectual legislation larded with giveaways to special interests,
such as the Waxman-Markey bill in the House and the bills being
considered now in the Senate.
The fundamental requirement for solving our fossil fuel addiction
and moving to a clean energy future is a rising price on carbon
emissions. Otherwise, if we refuse to make fossil fuels pay for their
damage to human health, the environment, and our children's future,
fossil fuels will remain the cheapest energy and we will squeeze every
drop from tar sands, oil shale, pristine lands, and offshore areas.
An essential corollary to the rising carbon price is 100 percent
redistribution of collected fees to the public -- otherwise the public
will never allow the fee to be high enough to affect lifestyles and
energy choices. The fee must be collected from fossil fuel companies
across-the-board at the mine, wellhead, or port of entry. Revenues
should be divided equally among all legal adult residents, with
half-shares for children up to two per family, distributed monthly as a
"green check". Part of the revenue could be used to reduce taxes,
provided the tax reduction is transparent and verifiable.
The rising carbon price will affect almost everything. People's
purchases will reflect a desire to minimize their costs. Food from
nearby farms will benefit; imports from halfway around the world will
decline. Renewable energies, other carbon-free energies, and energy
efficiency will grow; fossil fuels will decline.
The fee-and-green-check approach is transparent, fair and effective.
Congressman John Larson defined an appropriate rising fee. $15 per ton
of carbon dioxide the first year and $10 more per ton each year.
Economic modeling shows that carbon emissions would decline 30 percent
by 2020. The annual dividend then would be $2000-3000 per legal adult
resident, $6000-9000 per family with two or more children.
About sixty percent of the public would receive more in the green
check than they pay in added energy costs. People will set their net
cost or gain via their energy and other consumer choices. Dividends
could be adjusted state-by-state to prevent transfer of wealth from one
part of the country to another.
Religions across the spectrum -- Catholics, Jews, Mainline
Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelicals -- are united in seeing
climate change as a moral and ethical challenge. The Religious
Coalition on Creation Care is working with the Citizen's Climate Lobby,
the Price Carbon Campaign, and economists at the Carbon Tax Center to
help promote this honest and effective energy and climate policy. The
public, if well-informed, can be expected to support this policy.
But so far Congress has been steamrolled by special interests.
Congressional leaders add giveaways in their bills to attract industry
support and specific votes. The best of the lot, the Cantwell-Collins
bill, returns 75 percent of the revenue to the public. But it is still
a cap-and-trade scheme, and its low carbon price and offset-type
projects create little incentive for clean energy and would have only
small impact on carbon emissions.
Can the cacophony of special interests be overcome? There is one
way: the president must get involved. He must explain the situation to
the public and use his bully pulpit to persuade Congress to do what is
right for the nation and future generations.
He must explain that a rising carbon price is needed to phase out
our fossil fuel addiction. The dividend will provide the public the
means to move to a clean energy future, stimulating the economy.
Carbon fee and dividend is the base policy needed to move the nation
forward to a clean energy future. It must be supplemented by other
actions including building and efficiency standards, and public
investment in improved infrastructure and technology development.
Congress has a role to play toward these ends, but it is the rising
carbon price will make them feasible. Investment decisions are best
left to the private sector. The government can provide loan guarantees
for nuclear power and support development of trial carbon capture
storage, but these energies must compete with energy efficiency and
renewable energies in a free market.
The best part about a simple honest rising carbon price is that it
provides the only realistic chance for an international climate accord.
President Obama was right to abandon the 192-nation debate. The need is
for an agreement between the two dominant emitters: the United States
China will never agree to the "cap" approach that Congress favors.
Developing nations will not cap their economies. But China is willing
to negotiate a carbon price. How can I say that with confidence?
China is making enormous investments in nuclear power, wind power,
and solar power. They want to avoid the fossil fuel addiction of the
United States. They want to clean up their atmosphere and water. They
want to protect the several hundred million Chinese living near sea
level. They know that their clean fuels will win out only if fossil
fuels are made to pay for damages that they cause.
Once the United States and China agree on a carbon price, most other
nations will accept the same. Products made by nations that do not have
a carbon price can be charged an equivalent duty under existing rules
of the World Trade Organization. That will convince most nations to
join, so they can collect the tax themselves.
Perhaps posterity may remember that Obama reduced the number of
nuclear-tipped missiles, or that he added ten percent of Americans to
the health care roles. But if he dreams of being a great president, he
needs to take on the great moral challenge of our century.