Progressives and Climate

By John Andrews

Last year The Star ran an article of mine in “Guestwords” titled “Conservatives and Climate.” In it I stressed ways in which climate change is degrading values — family, country, and being right with God — that conservatives care about.

I advocated a solution based on the free market, namely revenue-neutral carbon pricing, otherwise known as carbon fee and dividend. That proposal, advocated by Citizens Climate Lobby, would have the government impose a fee on fossil fuels in proportion to their carbon emissions and then rebate the proceeds to the American people in equal shares. That this proposal won’t add to the national debt or increase the size of government were points I thought conservatives would like.

With the recent election delivering control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democrats, it’s time to speak to progressives on the same topic. My task here is to convince you that a solution to climate change that has appeal to conservatives also deserves support from progressives.

Because carbon fee and dividend is market based and revenue neutral, some progressives have characterized it as “too right-wing.” They feel that strict regulations are needed and that any proceeds from a carbon fee must be used to fund government-sponsored research and to ameliorate impacts on low-income people.

I have no desire to denigrate those goals. Regulations can be useful where market forces alone are not enough to bring about rational choices. Consider the case of rental housing in which landlords who don’t pay the gas and electric bills have little incentive to upgrade the energy efficiency of their buildings. Homebuilders can be tempted to cut corners on insulation or install cheap furnaces and air-conditioners in order to keep their selling prices down, leaving the new homeowners with excessive energy bills for years to come.

As for research, we very much need new approaches to energy efficiency, carbon-free energy, and ways to extract carbon from the atmosphere and the oceans. And certainly marginalized communities have borne the brunt of the pollution from our power plants and suffer the worst consequences of climate change.

Nevertheless, there are several good reasons for progressives to rally around carbon fee and dividend as the core strategy for mitigating climate change. First, most economists, regardless of their political orientation, agree that putting a price on carbon is the most effective way to achieve a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. Second, increasing the price of fossil fuels would give entrepreneurs the incentive to invest in research and to deploy new low-carbon technologies. 

Third, members of marginalized communities would benefit from the carbon dividend because they would get the same rebate that Bill Gates gets. The dividend would more than compensate for the increased cost of energy for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum, while the rich would pay more unless they wholeheartedly embrace energy-efficient technologies. Fourth, carbon fee and dividend, if enacted, would create millions of good private-sector jobs, most of which would not require advanced education. 

Finally, no proposal will have any effect unless it is enacted into law. Although any action on climate is unlikely as long as our current president is in office, it will be necessary to get bipartisan support for action even should the Democrats control both the executive branch and the national legislature after 2020. That’s not only because of the need for 60 votes in the Senate, but equally because the private sector needs to have reason for confidence that the incentive structure won’t be repealed after the next election.

We need to make climate change a bridge issue, not a wedge issue. Compromise will almost certainly be needed. It would be the greatest of tragedies if conservatives came to support an effective solution to the climate crisis only to have progressives walk away from anything short of perfection.

John Andrews is co-group leader of the Long Island East chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. He lives in Sag Harbor.