Michael Bloomberg & Jerry Brown, The U.S. Is Tackling Global Warming, Even if Trump Isn’t, The New York Times, Nov. 14.
The trope shown at left, about Trump “holding the planet hostage,” isn’t entirely new. But it came into sharper relief for me over the weekend as I read Robert Jay Lifton’s insightful new book, The Climate Swerve. And it gave added weight to the apostasy of a ranking Republican senator who earlier this month told the New York Times that Trump’s bluster toward North Korea may be setting the United States “on the path to World War III.”
The senator issuing the warning was Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His words capped a 10-day raging argument in which Trump ridiculed Corker’s decision not to seek a third term next year, and Corker tweeted that “the White House has become an adult day care center” struggling to keep its main occupant in check. “He concerns me,” the senator said of the president. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”
Corker’s blunt talk about Trump brought to mind his independent stance on climate in the months following the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The defeated GOP candidate, Senator John McCain, had been a backer of carbon cap-and-trade, as were many Congressional Democrats and nearly all of the major environmental organizations. Corker took a minority view, speaking out in favor of carbon taxing in a January 2009 hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee:
I wish we would just talk about a carbon tax, 100 percent of which would be returned to the American people. So there’s no net dollars that would come out of the American people’s pockets.
Not everyone back then viewed Corker as a straight shooter. Grist blogger David Roberts lambasted him for “talk[ing] his way inside the carbon policy tent and now … trying to burn it down” by diverting support from cap-and-trade. But the New Republic’s Brad Plumer insisted that “Bob Corker [is] making sense … for a fruitful conservative position” that’s revenue-neutral and transparent. (Roberts now blogs for Vox while Plumer writes for The New York Times.) Indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to credit Corker’s 2009 words as the launch pad for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s fee-and-dividend idea and its recent offshoot, the Climate Leadership Council’s carbon dividends approach.
Unfortunately, carbon taxing didn’t advance beyond the fringe in either political party, and climate rejection soon became an element of Republican tribal identity, leading Corker to give up on carbon taxes and on climate generally. And for more than a decade few public figures had much to say about nuclear weapons and the specter of nuclear war. That began to change this year with the launch of nuclear-capable missiles by North Korea and Trump’s vow that if “North Korea … make[s] any more threats to the United States, they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump has also repudiated the Paris climate agreement and taken steps to annul the Obama Clean Power Plan and to greenlight fossil fuel development across North America. Humankind now is staring at not one but two “apocalyptic twins,” in Lifton’s words: a nuclear threat and a climate threat. Both the parallels and differences between the two are the subject of Lifton’s new book, Climate Swerve, which appears in the immediate wake of climate furies that have devastated Houston, Puerto Rico and Northern California.
Lifton, a psychiatrist who turned 90 last year, has long observed, lived among and written about the perpetrators and victims of some of the 20th Century’s most profound atrocities — the atomic bombings of Japan, the Vietnam War and, of course, the Nazi Holocaust. His writing humanizing the hibakusha (literally, “explosion-affected people”) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his explorations of the “malignant normality” embodied in the Cold War policy of “mutually assured destruction” galvanized public and political support for both the Kennedy-Khrushchev 1963 ban on atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and the Reagan-Gorbachev 1987 agreement eliminating short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
It was only recently, however, that Lifton turned his attention to climate change. His brand-new book, eloquent and spare, has two tracks. In one he encourages what he calls the climate swerve — humanity’s “evolving awareness of our predicament” as we collectively cause, and face, climate ruin. In the other he seeks to bring to climate consciousness his perspective on what was, at least until this year, mankind’s turn from the brink of nuclear ruin.
This passage (slightly edited for readability, emphasis added in bold) is emblematic:
Nuclear and climate threats are separate and different from each other. With nuclear weapons, the mind must contemplate specific things — bombs that bring about revolutionary dimensions of blast, heat, and radiation. The imagined catastrophe is immediate and decisive, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki provides a model of unprecedented slaughter and suffering. With climate threat, the mind encounters no new physical entities or things, but rather an incremental sequence of an increasingly inhospitable habitat, a progression rather than an explosion, and a series of projections of what can be expected, as opposed to a clear display of ultimate destruction.
Nevertheless, an irony — and a strangely hopeful one — of Lifton’s book is that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have produced, for all who care to see, painfully “clear displays of ultimate destruction.” Lush Puerto Rican farmlands and woodlands flattened and laid barren are now literally concrete, as are obliterated California vineyards. Lifton himself put these facts front and center in an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this month (emphasis added):
Climate images have never been able to convey our full planetary danger until now. The extraordinary recent four-punch sequence of hurricanes … threatened the lives of millions of people, obliterated their homes and has raised doubts that some places will ever recover … The hurricanes … provided imagery equivalent to the danger, imagery equivalent to nuclear disaster. When we viewed photographs and film of the annihilated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we sensed that the world could be ended by nuclear weapons. Now these hurricanes have conveyed a similar feeling of world-ending, having left whole islands, once alive in their beauty and commerce, in ruin.
I imagine I’m not the only one brought to tears but also galvanized by those words. They appeared in print on the same Sunday morning, October 8, that Bob Corker called the New York Times to warn about Trump putting us “on the path to World War III.”
While there may not be a direct line from Lifton’s op-ed to Corker’s speaking out, both of their testimonies are proof that we’re not hostages. We still have voices, and both the advance of climate ruin and the renewed chances of nuclear ruin require that we raise them. Republican voices like Corker’s are especially critical, but anyone with power and a pulpit shouldn’t hesitate to use them. And for the rest of us, a letter to our local paper, a Facebook post, or plain old face-to-face sharing can help others grasp the gravity of the risks we are living with and how we can overcome them.
Robert Jay Lifton, Our Changing Climate Mind-Set, NY Times, Oct. 7.
The day after the Congressional climate solutions caucus added its 30th Republican member, a dozen U.S. Senators, all Democrats, introduced a bill that could help gauge how serious these House R’s are about tackling the climate crisis.
The Pollution Transparency Act, sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet and 11 fellow Senators including Warren (D-MA), Wyden (D-OR) and Whitehouse (D-RI), would establish a federal interagency working group to codify a cost of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to be used in federal rule-making, cost-benefit analysis and other administrative actions.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the climate solutions caucus reached a new milestone yesterday when it inducted its its 30th Republican member, Rep. Mimi Walters, from California’s Orange and Riverside Counties. The caucus, created and sponsored by the non-partisan Citizens Climate Lobby, has been admitting Republicans and Democrats in matched pairs since its formation in early 2017. There’s no shortage of Democrats eager to join, so the limiting factor is the other, largely climate-denying side of the aisle.
(The milestone was reported this morning in an E&E News story, Caucus Hits 60 Members, located, unfortunately, behind a paywall.)
The Bennet bill, summarized at left, would effectively codify, in legislation, the “social cost of carbon” (SCC) promulgated several years ago by the Obama administration and used in federal rule-making until recently. A number of states have adopted regulations based on the Obama SCC; for example, in 2016 the NY Public Service Commission calibrated its “zero emission credit” subsidy for nuclear power plants to the SCC.
To be sure, the SCC is a very imperfect benchmark, as we and others have noted repeatedly. It also falls far short of a carbon tax or price; by itself it will incentivize only a tiny fraction of the myriad behavioral changes, technical innovations and cultural shifts that an actual carbon or greenhouse-gas fee would spark.
Yet administrative recognition that emitting greenhouse gases imposes a cost is valuable. So too would be the symbolism of Republicans amounting to one-tenth of sitting G.O.P. representatives and senators — officially resolving that unpriced burning of fossil fuels isn’t quite free. And if they act in concert, the members of the climate solutions caucus could gain a modicum of political cover against the ruling denialist line while casting their first public vote for climate action.
A companion bill to Sen. Bennet’s has been introduced in the House by Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA-4), according to Bennet’s press release, which also lists as a key endorser a leading Republican economist: Glen Hubbard, Dean of Columbia School of Business and Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President George W. Bush.
When facing a precipice, the first step away is the most critical. Will these climate-aware Republicans take it?
(This post was researched and co-authored by CTC volunteer Diane Englander.)
A prominent Minnesota politician is hitching her candidacy for governor to a carbon dividend plan designed to reduce climate-damaging emissions and create jobs in clean energy.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto unveiled her Minnesota-Powered Clean Energy Plan on Sept. 20. The landing page of her gubernatorial campaign website depicts her on a rooftop driving home a solar inverter with a socket wrench. “Rebecca Otto walks the talk,” the page proclaims, urging voters to elect “a Governor who will actually do something about climate change.”
Otto’s plan is centered on a carbon charge that would begin at $40 per metric ton of CO2 and increase by 10% each year — a trajectory steep enough to cut carbon emissions by almost 30 percent (below 2005 levels) within a decade if applied nationally, according to CTC’s carbon tax model (Excel file), though not as much if applied only in a single state.
Three-fourths of the carbon revenues from Otto’s proposal would fund “Quarterly Clean Energy Cash Dividends” that Otto estimates will pay $600 a year to every Minnesota resident, with the dividend growing in tandem with the rising carbon price. The remaining 25% of the new revenue would fund “Clean Energy Refundable Tax Credits” for up to 30% of the cost of household energy-efficiency investments including electric cars, solar panels, triple-pane windows and insulation, and heat pumps.
The tax credits will “create tens of thousands of good-paying new private-sector jobs — often paying more than $80,000 per year — in every community across Minnesota,” Otto says, with “the work able to be financed with no money down” in many cases.
The 54-year-old Otto is one of six aspirants to the nomination of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Minnesota Democratic Party organization has been known since the 1940s. Others include a U.S. Representative and the Mayor of St. Paul. Local newspapers suggest as many as a dozen Republicans may also contend to replace Gov. Mark Dayton, the two-term incumbent who is not seeking re-election. The race is viewed as “wide open” by Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier.
An Illinois native who now lives in the small town of Marine on St. Croix, northeast of the Twin Cities, Otto is serving her third consecutive four-term as state auditor. In 2006 she handily defeated the incumbent Republican, then won by a squeaker in 2010, becoming the only Democrat ever re-elected to the office. In her 2014 re-election she won by her widest margin to date, outpacing Gov. Dayton by six percentage points.
Otto’s plan is a variant of the fee and dividend approach espoused by the non-partisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby and, more recently, the Republican-leaning Climate Leadership Council. It charges fossil fuel providers a fee pegged to their fuels’ carbon content and returns revenues to households as equal “dividends.” Her 25% allocation to clean energy tax credits can be seen as a pragmatic concession to business and job concerns that invariably arise in state-level carbon tax campaigning.
Otto is arguably the highest-profile U.S. political candidate to attach a campaign to an explicit and transparent price on carbon. She says that her 11 years as state auditor have taught her that Minnesotans want economic opportunity along with solutions to pressing problems such as climate change. She also views her program as a counterweight to “fossil fuel interests [that] spend billions to control our democracy and sow doubt and confusion [to] protect their profits at the expense of Americans.”
Minnesota has a history of seeking to address climate change. In the 1990s, state activists including the St. Paul-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance mounted a campaign for a billion-dollar state “tax shift” to reduce income and property taxes by taxing energy and fuels. While their proposal didn’t make it into law, it laid the groundwork for later carbon tax efforts. Since 1993 the Minnesota legislature has required the state Public Utilities Commission to incorporate air pollution costs into decision-making on power plants. In July the PUC ordered this “shadow price” raised to a range of $9.05 to $43.06 per short ton of CO2 by 2020. (Utility Dive gives details and explains the wide range.)
Otto’s plan would go much further, of course, embedding actual carbon costs in fuel and electricity prices and perhaps igniting a spark among the other 49 states. In an article this week for Scientific American, States Can Lead the Way on Climate Change, Otto wrote that “If other state leaders adopt similar proposals, the 2018 midterm elections could become a watershed moment when America seizes on a new state-level approach to tackling climate change and finally begins to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg.”
At a minimum, Otto’s campaign ensures that not just climate change but the idea of actually charging for carbon emissions will be front and center in next year’s Minnesota gubernatorial race. If she wins, however, her proposal still faces two potential hurdles: the state legislature and the Minnesota state constitution, whose Article 14, Section 10 could be interpreted as requiring that “excise taxes” on gasoline be paid into the state’s highway distribution fund (see discussion in CTC’s report, Opportunities for Carbon Taxing at the State Level, pp 91-92). However, if the carbon price is construed otherwise, e.g., as a fee, Otto’s proposal could be in the clear.
David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York magazine, July 9. (Quoted by David Roberts in We have no system to deal with escalating climate damages. It’s time to build one, at vox.com, Sept 21, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.)
Carbon taxing isn’t something you expect to see mentioned in What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s memoir about losing the 2016 election to Donald Trump. But deep in the book’s weeds we find a telling new window into how Clinton “blew the biggest slam dunk in the history of American politics” (as one political pro vented to New Yorker editor David Remnick; expletive deleted here).
Around p. 240* Clinton brings up carbon dividends — a form of carbon taxes — as the type of “bold, creative ideas” she says Democrats must offer Americans. She generously name-checks Peter Barnes, an avatar of carbon dividends, and points to Alaska’s “Permanent Fund” that annually divvies up North Slope oil royalties equally to all state households. Then she writes:
[S]ome Republican elder statesmen such as former U.S. Treasury Secretaries James Baker and Hank Paulson recently proposed a nationwide carbon dividend program that would tax fossil fuel use and refund all the money directly to every American … Under such a plan, working families with small carbon footprints could end up with a big boost in their incomes. [Bill and I] spent weeks working with our policy team to see if it could be viable enough to include in my campaign … Unfortunately, we couldn’t make the math work without imposing new costs on upper-middle-class families, which I had pledged not to do. (emphasis added)
Like so much with Clinton, this passage is strong on details and weak on vision.
Clinton is right that carbon dividend schemes will raise incomes of most working families. She is right that their gain will come at the expense of affluent families, whose carbon footprints are larger. Revenue distribution from a fixed revenue pie is, by its nature, zero-sum: what is disbursed to one class of recipients can’t be available to another.
Of course, any policy that transfers wealth from rich to poor is by definition income-progressive, which puts carbon dividends squarely in the Democratic Party tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson. Climate benefits aside, carbon dividends’ distributional benefits make the policy a natural for progressives, as we pointed out last week in our post, The climate solution that boosts income for over 60% of Americans — the ones who most need it.
But did Clinton’s policy team really “spend weeks” searching for the carbon-revenue equivalent of a perpetual motion machine — one that would diminish inequality without costing “affluent families” a dime? Doubtful. The impossibility would have been obvious in fifteen minutes, especially to her policy-smart husband. Besides, carbon dividends didn’t suddenly originate with James Baker et al.; they’ve been a staple of carbon tax advocacy for nearly a decade. Their distributional impacts are well-established.
What’s more likely, and as Clinton herself hints, is that her team spent weeks trying to find the messaging to sell carbon dividends to her upper-middle-class base. But that should have been easy as well; their message could have gone like this:
Carbon dividends are a policy we can put in place quickly to accelerate our country’s transition from climate-killing, health-killing fossil fuels, with no new administrative machinery, which the rest of the world can emulate. Those who are doing well will have to contribute more for the common good, but this is a way of making every American feel more connected to our country and to one another — part of something bigger than ourselves. (Bold section are Clinton’s own words, from the discussion of carbon dividends in her book; prior text is mine.)
Yes, Trump and his backers would have pilloried Clinton for backing a carbon tax. But she was being hounded anyway for a hundred other reasons, both real and ginned up. Why not take a stand? Indeed, why not take a page from Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign playbook? In his April 14, 2016 debate with Clinton, for example, Sen. Sanders unapologetically supported “a tax on carbon so that we can transit away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy at the level and speed we need to do.”
Watching that debate, I imagined Americans who were tepid or worse on carbon taxing nonetheless admiring Sanders’ forthrightness. Some might even have been swept up with a new openness to the idea of carbon taxing.
To be clear, failure to back carbon taxing isn’t why Hillary Clinton lost last November. But her inability to stand for something bold like carbon dividends was indicative of her incapacity to transcend policy details and connect them to a larger vision. And that arguably cost her the election every bit as much as Comey, Russia and the other usual suspects.
* Page number from “What Happened” is approximate, as viewed on a Kindle. The conception and shape of this post benefited greatly from CTC supporter and blog contributor Rachael Sotos. Note that our original headline, “Hillary Clinton and the Missing Carbon Dividends,” has been changed.
To view the latest census data on U.S. household incomes is to marvel at — and be appalled by — the unequal distribution of income in America.
In 2016, according to official data released last month, the lowest-earning one-third of U.S. households received just one-twelfth of total money income, which the Census Bureau defines as “the arithmetic sum of money wages and salaries, net income from self-employment, and income other than earnings.”
At the other end of the scale, the top 7 percent earning households — those with incomes of at least $200,000 — pulled in 27 percent of U.S. income last year. Note the symmetry: those at the top earn four times their pro rata share, while those in the broad bottom earn only one-fourth of theirs.
Stark as these figures are, they don’t capture the full extent of the wealth gaps — the one between the rich and the middle class, and the other between the middle and the poor. These gaps accumulate over generations, as the New York Times noted this week in its trenchant dive into the data, Bump in U.S. Incomes Doesn’t Erase 50 Years of Pain.
These disparities underlay Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. And they added fuel to the sense of white grievance that energized Donald Trump’s successful run for the presidency. They also bolster the case for “carbon dividends” — the idea of distributing all or nearly all carbon tax revenues equally to U.S. households popularized as carbon fee and dividend by the non-partisan Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), and more recently advanced by the Republican-led Climate Leadership Council (CLC) under the rubric of carbon dividends.
Using incomes as a proxy for carbon emissions — a rough approximation but a reasonable one, given income-based differences not only in using electricity, gasoline and heating and aviation fuels but also carbon embodied in making and shipping consumer goods — we’ve used the census data to estimate that if all carbon revenues are returned to the public, nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of U.S. households will take in as much or more money in the form of carbon dividends as they would pay out in higher fuel and goods prices due to carbon taxes.
Our figure jibes with the U.S. Treasury Department’s finding in its Jan. 2017 report, Methodology for Analyzing a Carbon Tax, that the lowest seven income deciles will be net beneficiaries of a carbon dividends plan (see Table 6) . Our estimate of the share of U.S. households that will be net beneficiaries under carbon diviends, 65.9 percent before rounding, is up slightly from our prior 65.1 percent “better off” finding based on 2012 incomes. Among those 65.9 percent, which encompass 83 million households, the average gain (carbon dividend netted by carbon tax expense) per $100 billion in total carbon revenue is $415 per year.
While that net gain may seem small — just $8 per week — the revenue amount on which it’s based corresponds to a very modest carbon tax, around $23 per ton of CO2. A robust carbon tax that climbed to a level several times higher would generate correspondingly larger net dividends for the benefiting households. Moreover, the more indigent the household, the greater its estimated net gain.
The breakeven household income point is a shade over $85,000, a level 45 percent greater than the 2016 median household income of $59.000; “typical” households will be net gainers if their income is less, and losers if more. Of course, if the share of carbon revenues dedicated to revenue return is reduced, the percentage of households kept whole under carbon fee and dividend shrinks as well. Our calculations suggest that around two-thirds of carbon revenues must be returned as dividends in order for half of households to have their carbon tax fully offset. (See line chart below.)
A conundrum for the climate movement
The ability of carbon dividends to lift incomes of the bottom half or more of U.S. households creates a conundrum for the climate movement, especially now that Republicans, who traditionally align with capital and wealth, are beginning to sign up for carbon dividend proposals.
The progenitors of CLC’s carbon dividend plan, James Baker and George Shultz, are “exemplars of the outcast center-right GOP establishment,” as I described them recently in the Washington Spectator. At least as impressively, 28 current GOP U.S. House members have joined CCL’s Climate Solutions Caucus and thus signaled their possible openness to a carbon fee that reserves carbon revenues for dividends instead of applying them to cut corporate income taxes.
Yet many on the left are insisting that carbon revenues, or at least a large share of them, be invested in government-administered or financed clean-energy development and transportation infrastructure, especially in so-called frontline communities. Because each dollar of carbon revenue can’t be spent twice, the competing demands of carbon dividends vs. “just transition” proposals threaten to divide the climate movement — as they already did in last fall’s divisive I-732 carbon-tax referendum in Washington state, which I reported this past winter in The Nation magazine.
Ironically, it’s possible (indeed, I believe it’s likely) that allocating carbon revenues to dividends would more reliably benefit low-income families more than would spending the revenues on sustainable energy and transportation. Considering further that revenue-neutral dividend approaches might eventually garner meaningful support from some Republicans, it seems self-defeating for left-leaning or other climate advocates to reject them out of hand.
For our part, CTC supports any viable carbon tax proposal, revenue-neutral or not, provided it would not demonstrably exacerbate economic inequality or other social injustice. Thus far we have refrained from endorsing the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act introduced in July by U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI), pending analysis of the regressive aspects of its proposed tax swap to reduce the corporate tax rate to 29 percent, from 35 percent, among other provisions.
That said, crunch time is coming for carbon dividend apostles. If the late summer hurricanes that have ravaged southeast Texas, Caribbean nations and much of Florida won’t induce Republican office-holders to spurn their party’s denialist orthodoxy and embrace revenue-neutral carbon taxing, it’s fair to ask if they’ll ever push for genuine climate solutions.
Note: This post was originally headlined “Worsening Economic Inequality Should Broaden Support for Carbon Dividends.”
Miami (FL) Mayor Tomás Regalado (a Republican), in Harrowing Storms May Move Climate Debate, if Not G.O.P. Leaders, NY Times, Sept 14.
Lisa Friedman, Hurricane Irma Linked to Climate Change? For Some, a Very ‘Insensitive’ Question, NY Times, Sept. 11.