Barry Lawson: Conservatives’ carbon dividend plan merits consideration

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Barry Lawson, who is president of Barry Lawson Associates, a consultancy that does environmental mediation and strategic planning. He was project manager for the publication of Where The Great River Rises, an atlas of the Connecticut River Watershed in New Hampshire and Vermont. He lives in Peacham with his wife Lynne.

The worldwide movement toward renewable energy sources (renewables) is thriving. Renewables make sense for many reasons: long-term sustainability; decent returns on investments; an antidote to polluting carbon emissions (recognized by most people and nations as a major culprit in global warming); and clean air for people living in highly polluted regions. Fossil fuels will be with us for some time, even the staunchest of environmentalists admit; however, the future, no matter what fossil fuel advocates might wish or say, is in renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Finding a politically and economically acceptable strategy for the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is a challenge, but most people agree that it must be done. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans worried about global warming either a great deal or a fair amount. This is the highest percentage in the past eight years; and in no year in the last 26 has that percentage been less than 50 percent — it has been as high as 72 percent. Moreover, 59 percent of Americans believe that the effects of global warming are already apparent. This percentage has increased every year for the past six years. Only 10 percent of the population are outright deniers, claiming that we will never see the effects of global warming. Most Americans, it seems, do not believe that global warming is a hoax.

In response to the commitment taken on by most countries of the world to systemically reduce carbon emissions for critical health and environmental reasons, the Obama administration introduced a Climate Action Plan in 2013 to help the United States make progress on climate oriented goals in the coming years. These goals include protecting our seacoasts and vital public infrastructure along the coasts, and working cooperatively with other nations. Its approach, currently under attack by the new administration, depends on regulations for cutting carbon emissions. Opponents of the plan characterize these regulations as more government interference. OK, there is an approach that addresses this concern.

But we are all waiting to see what the administration’s energy policy will be and whether it will acknowledge climate change and embrace creative solutions.

 

The Climate Leadership Council (CLC) is a non-partisan research and advocacy organization whose mission is to rally global opinion leaders around a climate solution based on so-called carbon dividends. Ted Halstead, CEO of the CLC, says, “The only successful path to repealing a major program is by replacing it with something better. For now, the Trump administration is pursuing a repeal-only climate strategy. We (CLC) are offering the GOP a replacement program that is an insurance policy for our climate, that would be considerably more effective than the Obama-era climate regulations it would replace, and is an economic support program for America’s struggling working class. Embracing carbon dividends could be a strategic bonanza for the GOP.”

In a nutshell the CLC plan calls for a gradually increasing, revenue-neutral tax on carbon dioxide emissions, to be implemented at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy, meaning the mine, well or port. Because the imposed tax will be passed along to consumers, all proceeds from the tax will be rebated to the American people on an equal and quarterly basis via dividend checks, direct deposits or contributions to their individual retirement accounts (estimated to be about $2,000 per family of four in the first year, assuming a tax of $40 per ton of carbon emitted). Necessarily, border order adjustments will be used to protect American competitiveness by taxing imports from, and rebating taxes paid by companies exporting to, non-complying nations. The result of the above will permit a significant rollback of regulations that will no longer be necessary once a meaningful carbon tax is in place.

Those interested in the details of the plan are directed to the CLC’s website.

Among the plan’s supporters are former secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz; two former chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers, Martin S. Feldstein and N. Gregory Mankiw; and former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

The CLC presented its plan to the new administration and got an initial favorable reaction. But we are all waiting to see what the administration’s energy policy will be and whether it will acknowledge climate change and embrace creative solutions.

In light of new legislative proposals in Vermont for a carbon tax, Northeast Vermont On Guard, an activist group of which I am a founder, believes strongly that the CLC’s carbon dividends plan should be carefully considered by liberals and conservatives, who favor market-based incentives over regulatory sticks. Here is a unique opportunity to show the world that America can govern responsibly and develop sound policy in a bipartisan manner.

It makes sense to give such an approach a full airing. We are not alone. The Financial Times, Barron’s Bloomberg, New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post, among others, have extolled the carbon dividend concept. In this current environment of partisan politics, demagoguery and challenging coalition building, CLC’s carbon dividend proposal deserves to be on the debate table. Its positive approach would indeed be a breath of fresh air.

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