Brief #50—Environment

Policy Summary
Last week U.S. lawmakers sponsored the first bipartisan attempt at climate legislation in nearly a decade. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act would impose a progressively increasing tax on carbon emissions, topping out in 2030 at $100 per ton of carbon.

The tax is coupled with cuts on EPA regulations that are viewed as redundant with the targeted energy production industries. However, if emissions exceed the targets set by the legislation, the EPA is authorized to impose regulation to make up the difference. Proponents of the bill claim the policy would reduce carbon emissions by forty percent in 2030 and by ninety-one percent in 2050. Analyses indicate that the bill would provide greater emissions cuts than competing proposals, such as those of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) or Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). Whether these are plausible projections is highly uncertain, however, depending on factors such as economic growth, technological progress and policy developments.

The bill is designed to be revenue neutral: proceeds of the tax would be distributed back to American taxpayers in the form of a rebate ($500 on average per individual; around $3500 for a family of four). This revenue-neutral approach no doubt helped attract the Republican sponsors of the bill. This included Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and David Trott (R-Mi.), who were joined by Democratic House members Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), John Delaney (D-Md.) and Charlie Crist (D-Fla.). Its revenue neutrality distinguishes it from other current carbon tax bills and proposals that have recently garnered attention, such as the Curbelo and Whitehouse proposals or the more aggressive Green New Deal positions advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Economist Noah Kaufman has offered positive, if measured, support for The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. It appears to be especially effective as a mechanism of carbon reduction, at least in the short term, as longer-term projections tend to involve more speculative assumptions.

His conclusions about the economic impact of the policy are more qualified and tentative, however. The proposal is structured in a highly progressive form, extending most of the benefits of the rebates to lower- and middle-class taxpayers, who, it is hoped, will then not feel the brunt of rising fuel and heating costs. But Kaufman also notes that its revenue-neutral approach “would sacrifice opportunities for better macroeconomic outcomes or government services.”

Kaufman is gesturing at some of the weaknesses in what is ultimately a neoliberal approach to the idea of carbon taxes, weaknesses that may explain why, as commentators such as Bill Scher have wondered, such a victory for climate change bipartisanship has largely been met with silence and indifference by the climate-activist community (Citizen’s Climate Lobby has vocally supported it, however).

Climate hawks worry that if tax revenues are not reinvested in the green economy, especially in renewable energy subsidies, the result will  be unstable and squeezed energy markets, and thus, lower economic growth and higher unemployment. Hence, many probably see supporting Ocasio-Cortez’s concurrent push for the Green New Deal package as a better investment of advocacy capital.

Yet, some commentators note that even if the bill is effectively dead on arrival in the current political environment, it may create policy inertia similar to the way the Clinton healthcare push, and the center-right policies it spurred in response, eventually set the table of options for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Additionally, for proponents of the bill like Scher, pragmatism and getting things done should trump climate change-policy perfectionism. And anyway, the biggest victory here was symbolic, thanks to the first development of some kind bipartisanship on climate policy in nearly ten years.

Perhaps, but the ACA may be an instructive example in a different sense. It may illustrate how suboptimally designed policy compromises can end up delegitimizing the entire enterprise with the American public, not to mention paving the way to electoral disaster for progressives. What’s more, the bipartisanship evidenced here is less impressive than it seems.

Rooney’s district in southern Florida is regularly hammered by the increasingly powerful hurricanes climate change is causing, while David Trott is retiring from a district that was just taken over by Democrat Haley Stevens. It is true that Brian Fitzpatrick has an impressive reputation for independence. Still, Fitzpatrick represents one of the few remaining House seats where gerrymandering has not made political centrism toxic. Indeed, it’s something of a miracle that in a Democratic wave election he held onto his seat in the newly redrawn First congressional district of Pennsylvania, which leans Democrat.

The idea that this represents a new inception of bipartisanship on climate change is wishful thinking, plain and simple. All the evidence necessary to demonstrate this fact can be found on @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter feed.

Of course, there is no question that eventually bipartisan compromises will have to be made for any climate change legislation to be passed. But if real negotiations on climate policy ever begin someday, one hopes Democrats will not be so desperate for any compromise at all that they allow the GOP to force them into dead-end policy solutions and electoral suicide.

Engagement Resources

  • Greenpeace is “a global, independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.”
  • The Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) is an organization whose “mission is to educate young people on the science of climate change and aid them in meaningful advocacy.”
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists is a network of professional scientists who seek to bring the insights of science to bear on issues of public concern.
  • Citizens’ Climate Lobby is “a non-profit, nonpartisan, grassroots advocacy organization focused on national policies to address climate change.”
  • org “uses online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects, take money out of the companies that are heating up the planet, and build 100% clean energy solutions that work for all.”
  • Climate Reality Project is “a diverse group of passionate individuals who’ve come together to solve the greatest challenge of our time. We are activists, cultural leaders, organizers, scientists, and storytellers committed to building a sustainable future together.”
  • The Sunrise Movement is an activist organization working to further the idea of a Green New Deal revolution in climate change policy.

This Brief was posted by USRESIST NEWS Analyst Jonathan Schwartz: Contact;

Photo by Appolinary Kalashnikova

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