Mr. President, before you finish your State of the Union address, go pick up today's Washington Post and read the editorial, "Mr. Obama's climate commitment." Quite frankly, the paper has surprised me in how much support they have given you for making climate change a priority of your second term. Perhaps there is intelligent life in the Beltway after all.
There are three suggestions from the editorial that are worth thinking about.
1. Science is the reason to address climate change.
In past addresses, talking about green jobs didn’t work, nor did talking about energy independence. The credible way to justify fighting climate change is to discuss the science, the real reason to cut carbon emissions. There is overwhelming evidence that the planet is warming. The widespread burning of fossil fuels, meanwhile, pumps heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every second.There is no getting around it. Job creation and energy security are side effects of taking action on climate change, but science provides the reason to cut greenhouse gas emissions. There is overwhelming evidence that business-as-usual in burning fossil fuels will create unspeakable challenges for future generations.
Talking about the science is only controversial because billions have been spent on lobbyists and clever disinformation campaigns. Scientists have even been bullied. Stick up for the science.
2. Pricing carbon is the only way to level the playing field for clean energy.
Putting a slowly rising, significant price on carbon emissions would encourage people to burn less fossil fuel without micromanaging by Congress or the Energy Department. This approach would enlist market forces to green the energy sector. It would also allow for similar policies in other nations to connect with America’s, creating a bigger, global market for carbon.Australia has recently implemented a carbon tax and their economy has not collapsed. What it has done is to make clean energy competitive without subsidies.
Also, the Post makes an important point. Once in place, it is only has to be protected from members of Congress auditioning to become fossil fuels lobbyists. No need for discussions about revenue neutrality.
Make no mistake, we need your voice on carbon pricing. A recent survey conducted by Duke University found that the American people are not sold on the idea of a carbon tax. The vast majority understand that our climate is changing, but pricing carbon is not popular. Here are the numbers and they are ugly:
Only 29% of Americans strongly or somewhat support a carbon tax. Indeed, only a slim majority of those who perceive climate change to be a “very serious threat” express support (53%). And the carbon tax is decidedly unpopular among those who believe climate change is a somewhat serious threat (27% support).Many Americans do not understand the need for carbon pricing. Then again, most Americans do not understand how many subsidies and tax breaks are given to fossil fuels. You have a chance to lift the haze with some carefully chosen words.
Despite the likely opposition from all the usual suspects, a carbon tax provides a predictable element for businesses to base decisions. Carbon trading schemes have been volatile. Time-limited incentives for clean energy create the boom and bust cycles like what we have recently seen in wind energy.
3. Without carbon pricing, regulation is the only tool at your disposal.
The president should also remind Congress that, without ambitious action from lawmakers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can and will act on its own. The EPA has already established or is in the process of establishing a range of new air pollution rules. These rules will ensure than no new conventional coal plants are built in the United States, and they will force the closure of some particularly awful, ancient coal-fired facilities.The Duke survey showed considerable support (64%) for regulating greenhouse gas emissions. That support lends weight to using regulation as a sword if it comes to war. While that might work as a last resort, it is has some distinct limitations. Using the EPA to regulate carbon emissions makes the agency that much more of a lightning rod for ginned-up controversy by conservatives and coal-state Democrats. It also puts carbon emissions regulations in the hands of future administrations that may want to follow the Bush-Cheney lead.
The Post editorial correctly notes that top-down EPA is less attractive (and likely less effective) than a carbon tax. The trick is to convince the public and Congress. There is plenty of ammunition to draw from in making the case for carbon pricing. Dr. James Hensen, one of NASA's most visible climate scientists, has long advocated carbon pricing through a tax-and-dividend approach. He is not alone.
Yes, we can take meaningful action on the climate crisis, but your leadership is critical. You highlighted climate change in your post-election victory speech and your inaugural address. Keep the streak going with your State-of-the-Union address. Do it for Sasha and Malia. After all, it is their generation that will experience some of the worst effects of our insane carbon pollution experiment.