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'Carbon Fee & Dividend' Bill Introduced to Battle 'Planetary Emergency' of Climate Change

Jon Queally, staff writer

The day after two new opinion polls revealed overwhelming public support for "significant action on tackling climate change"—and several days ahead of a planned climate rally in Washington billed as the "largest in US history"—two Senators on Thursday announced their plans for new legislation that would, among other provisions, include a carbon fee and dividend component designed to incentivize a move away from fossil fuels and towards a more sustainable energy system in the United States.

A press conference held by Sen.Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and attended by leaders from environmental and consumer advocacy groups, was held on Capitol Hill to explain the contents of the two bills drafted and the thinking driving the proposals.

"I fear very much that our children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren are going to look back on this period in history and ask a very simple question: Where were they?" said Sanders to gathered reporters. "Why didn’t the United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth, lead the international community in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the devastating damage that the scientific community was sure would come?"

"I fear very much that our children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren are going to look back on this period in history and ask a very simple question: Where were they?" – Sen. Bernie Sanders

During her comments, Boxer said that though few think quality legislation can get through the highly dysfunctional current Congress, the "planetary emergency" presented by climate change compelled she and her colleagues to try.

Joining Sanders and Boxer at the news conference were environmental and consumer leaders including Bill McKibben, founder of; Mike Brune, executive director of Sierra Club; Tara McGuiness, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund; Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen’s energy director; and Meg Power of the National Community Action Foundation.

“Sens. Sanders and Boxer actually understand the depth of the climate problem we face. We are awfully grateful to them for starting us down the legislative path that could reverse our disastrous course. We hope and trust that they won't have to be a lone voice,” said McKibben, who on Wednesday, along with Brune and others, was arrested outside the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Growing political shifts surrounding public opinion on climate change were evidence as well on Wednesday, as two new polls showed that US public is ready for climate action from Congress.

As The Guardian reports:

A poll for the League of Conservation Voters showed that 65% of Americans want Obama to take "significant steps" to prevent climate change. Pollster Joel Benenson said public support – which cut across race and age – gave Obama extra leverage on his central promise to make climate change a central component of his second-term agenda. "This is across a broad spectrum of Americans," Benenson told a conference call.

Among Republicans, however, only 38% wanted action on climate change.

Another poll, conducted for the Natural Resources Defense Council, found that 65% of Americans consider climate change a serious problem. Nearly as many, 62%, agreed with Obama's call to act "for the sake of our children".

The central component of the Sanders and Boxer proposal—contained in two separate bills, the Climate Protection Act (pdf) and the Sustainable Energy Act (pdf)—is the so-called 'fee and dividend' program, which will impose a fee on processed carbon (ie. at the oil refinery, coal processing plant, etc.) by levying a per tonnage tax and returning three-fifths of the revenue generated to the public in the form of a rebate. The model is based on the current one used by Alaska's oil dividend program in which all legal residents are given a monthly share of money generated by state fees on the oil industry.

According to the summary of the legislation, the dividend program "is the most progressive way to ensure that if fossil fuel companies jack up prices, consumers and families can offset cost increases on fuel and electricty." In other words, as oil, coal, and gas companies try to pass the cost of the carbon fee onto consumers, the rebate program recoups those costs and helps incentivize overall less use of fossil fuels.

As The San Francisco Chronicle explains:

The fee-and-dividend idea offers a way around the political and distributional obstacles of a carbon tax. A price on carbon is widely considered essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and is much simpler and more transparent than the cap-and-trade legislation Boxer sponsored in 2009. A carbon tax has potential appeal to conservatives, at least conservative economists, as a market based approach to reducing climate pollution, as well as to tax reform. A carbon tax is a consumption tax, which economists generally prefer to taxes on work, savings and investment.

“Pricing carbon is an important tool to address climate change, and this legislation ensures that working families aren’t penalized by dedicating 3/5 of revenues to a per-capita family refund. This will protect families at the same time we seek to protect the climate,” said Slocum, Public Citizen’s energy program director.

A portion of the remaining two-fifths of the revenue generated by the carbon fee will be used to make investments in energy efficiency, said Boxer and Sanders, including funding for new technologies, home and business weatherization, research and development, and job creation in the clean energy sector.

"To transform our energy system, this legislation makes the boldest ever investment in energy efficiency and sustainable energy," said Sanders.

Read the summary of the legislation here (pdf).

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