Behaving Normally to Fight the Climate Crisis

By Raymond Welch

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We got into the climate mess through normal economic behavior. Can we get ourselves out the same way?

For a couple of weeks each of the past three autumns, my community a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge has lain under a pall of wildfire smoke. This year, 200,000 people were evacuated for the Kincade Fire, which burned 121 square miles of Sonoma wine country. Some evacuees stayed with relatives or friends. A few got into hotels, which quickly reached capacity. Many were obliged to occupy cots and folding chairs in impromptu shelters at fairgrounds and auditoriums, where they calmed their children, managed their pets, tended to the infirm and elderly, and scrolled through cell phone screens for hints that their homes yet stood.

Meanwhile, the gusting wind riffled the tawny seasonal grasses and the leaves in trees dying of Phytophthora ramorum, better known here as sudden oak death. The utility company shut off electricity to three million people for five days, worried that a live power line might break loose and ignite a bit of that desiccated vegetation.

Still, this time was better than 2017 and 2018, when tens of thousands of people lost their residences and businesses to wind-driven firestorms that consumed a football field per second. Many had no notice to evacuate; scores were trapped and lost their lives. During the Tubbs Fire, one pair of friends escaped and stayed with my wife and me. Their home was spared. Not so another pair, artists, who got out with their lives but whose house and studio burned to the ground along with their lifetimes of drawings, paintings, and sculpture.

On a planetary scale, I hardly need recount the perverse milestones we’ve passed that make “natural” disasters like this more likely and more powerful since I contemplated my complicity in our unfolding climate catastrophe in Terrain.org six years ago.

We’ve pushed the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content well beyond 400 parts per million, the highest level in three million years. As a consequence, July 2019 was Earth’s hottest month on record.

Hurricane Dorian, rather than passing over the Bahamas in a few hours this past August, hovered over them for two days because the warming atmosphere is slowing global circulation.

Climate disruption is upon us. Yet even as a haze of smoke hung over my neighborhood once again this fall, I found reason for optimism somewhere I never expected: politics.

Climate disruption is upon us. Yet even as a haze of smoke hung over my neighborhood once again this fall, I found reason for optimism somewhere I never expected: politics.

We get a lot of well-meaning personal advice to counter the climate threat. Exchange your incandescent bulbs for LEDs. Turn the thermostat up. Or down. But the continued advance of global CO2 tells us that these exhortations fall short. In an unintended but real way, they subtly blame us for having been born in the Anthropocene and behaving normally within its built environment. The climate problem is ours to solve, yes, but the blame feels unjust. It’s a bit like holding ordinary 14th-century Europeans responsible for being born into the medieval settlements that fostered the Black Death and failing to transcend their time and place to institute prevention and cure.

The issue is scale. We know in our hearts that we can’t volunteer our way out of the climate crisis. It isn’t a personal problem to be corrected by the equivalent of tweaking our energy hygiene any more than the plague was a personal problem to be corrected by tweaking the phrasing of prayer. It’s a social-system problem, and it requires a social-system response. We need to agree, as quickly as possible, across the broadest possible number of disparate people, on a permanent, foundational change in how we live day to day. This agreement has to be stronger than the vested fossil fuel interests whose money perpetuates the status quo.

Am I talking about the Green New Deal? No.

I’m grateful that the GND has catapulted climate into the national debate, where it’s been sorely absent. The GND brims with worthy aspirations. But it’s also highly ideological—not so much a proposal as a worldview. Its demand for government-enforced actions that go beyond the climate crisis—actions like guaranteeing universal access to healthy food, high-quality health care, higher education, union jobs, and affordable housing—will provoke a substantial portion of the population to oppose it, especially since these measures would very likely require large, immediate, regressive tax increases, while the promised benefits would take years to realize, if ever.

Worldviews imprint in childhood, as religion and language do. They deeply implicate personal identity and group values. Reinforced by culture and societal structures, they hardwire themselves within human cognition. This hardwiring lacks ready connectors for incompatible facts, or even changing circumstances.

People who’ve resisted the reality of the climate crisis in the face of overwhelming evidence aren’t going to be persuaded to change out their generations-old worldview for its opposite in a single election cycle. It’s too much like admitting that everything you, your parents, and your tribe knows is wrong.

Above all, we need to reform our economic system so that it reduces carbon pollution as a matter of course, at scale, without requiring anyone to repudiate their core beliefs or identity, or putting their social or economic standing in immediate peril.

To address climate change permanently and effectively, with minimum disruption and without violence, we need to do many things, thoughtfully. But above all, we need to reform our economic system so that it reduces carbon pollution as a matter of course, at scale, without requiring anyone to repudiate their core beliefs or identity, or putting their social or economic standing in immediate peril. A proposal that’s as partisan as the Green New Deal could incite a reaction like the Yellow Vest uprising in France. The GND also presupposes a successful change in federal administration in 2020 which, beyond being a risk in itself, plainly implies that it could be undone by the stroke of a pen under a successor administration. That’s what happened to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

We need a more inclusive approach to this universal issue. Although America’s democracy has been poisoned by Russian-influenced social media and unreasoning tribalism, it’s is still the one social structure that enables all of us, regardless of other belief systems, to agree on something and act accordingly.

In the case of climate, the proposal we can agree on right now is called fee-and-dividend.

Fee-and-dividend is a closed-loop, virtuous-cycle, socially just economic ecosystem that preserves personal autonomy and doesn’t require anyone to change their way of life.  

Under fee-and-dividend, each fossil fuel company pays an annually increasing fee for each ton of potential carbon dioxide emissions in the fuel it produces. The fossil fuel company decides how much of the fee to incorporate into its pricing as a cost of business, just as it does with wages and materials. Ultimately, the cost of the fees will push up retail prices in rough proportion to the total amount of carbon that was emitted to deliver each good or service. 

So far, we’re in Yellow Vest territory, right? But here’s the thing that makes the structure progressive instead of regressive, and bridges the partisan gap: the government doesn’t keep the money. Each month, the Department of Treasury divides the entire collected amount on an equal-share, per-capita basis, and rebates 100 percent of it (less administrative costs) to everyone in the United States with a Social Security number or federal tax identifier.

If your equal-share dividend is more than the cost of carbon implicit in your purchases, you’ve just earned the cash difference. Conversely, if your purchases represent more than the average amount of carbon emissions, your dividend won’t cover the excess, and you’ll have paid for that excess portion.

The dividend would be financially net positive for 70 percent of American households, even after the price increase caused by the fee, according to the Treasury’s Office of Tax Analysis.[1] That’s because less wealthy households consume less, and less consumption generates less greenhouse gases.

That seems eminently fair. No one was born with a prior right to consume a larger share of the atmosphere’s life-sustaining capacity than anyone else. The net infusion of cash into middle- and lower-income families, combined with the universality of the dividend, will make the system as politically popular and durable as Social Security. Returning all the revenue to ourselves, personally, in equal shares, also avoids pitting one group or special interest against another over who gets what share of money, and counters the deep pockets of the fossil fuel lobby.

Congress is considering at least six fee-and-dividend bills, including HR 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which is the subject of a current article in The Atlantic. It’s estimated that enacting this bill would drive at least 40 percent of America’s annual GHG emissions out of existence by 2030—which coincides with the Green New Deal’s 2030 goal. The Energy Innovation Act has 72 cosponsors as of this writing. Thirty-seven of them also cosponsor the GND, and one (so far) is a Republican.

Will a party that has based its identity on climate-change denial support such a bill? Lately, in private, some Republicans concede the reality of the climate crisis, and they’re looking for a way to “jailbreak,” as Sheldon Whitehouse put it on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Even Frank Luntz, the conservative messaging guru and architect of climate doubt, has said, “I was wrong.” He now supports climate action—specifically, fee-and-dividend. Polling shows that 58 percent of Republicans under 40 understand the climate crisis is urgent. Getting some level of Republican agreement, which is critical to the long-term survival of any national climate measure, is why HR 763 relies on market dynamics and personal choice, and doesn’t use the fee to grow the government. The possibility of a bipartisan agreement is real.

For a corollary in this polarized political environment, look to the recent passage of the bipartisan First Step Act, which substituted rehabilitation for the stiff sentencing practices for nonviolent drug crimes that many Republicans (and some Democrats) had long championed.

If everybody gets the same amount of money back, won’t some people just pay up to pollute? How will carbon emissions decline?

But even if you accept the political possibility, you may be skeptical of the concept’s effectiveness. If everybody gets the same amount of money back, won’t some people just pay up to pollute? How will carbon emissions decline?

First, it’s mostly about the business end. Businesses will innovate to squeeze carbon and its cost out of their processes to remain price-competitive. If they don’t, the increasing cost could well push them into obsolescence.

Second, people tend to buy the cheaper item, all else being equal. Under fee and dividend, the cheaper items will tend to be low-carbon, reinforcing the pressure on businesses to reduce carbon pollution. For example, a loaf of bread baked in a natural gas oven and shipped 200 miles by diesel truck might cost $6 on the supermarket shelf. A loaf baked in an oven powered by renewable electricity and shipped 20 miles by an electric delivery van might cost $5. Most consumers would buy the better value, and use the extra money for other necessities, like healthcare.

Third, people will feel empowered. Just by shopping normally for value-priced necessities, they’ll know they’re acting in concert with tens of millions of others to do something tangible to drive emissions down.

So what about other emitter countries, like China?

The bills in Congress impose a surcharge on imports from countries lacking a carbon price. Because the U.S. is by far the world’s largest consumer market, export nations would likely institute their own carbon price to retain competitive access to it.

The bills also allow U.S. manufacturers who sell products overseas to deduct the cost of their domestically incurred carbon fees from their taxes to protect jobs here in America.

Higher prices work. They’ve reduced tobacco consumption substantially. More than 3,500 economists, including every living Federal Reserve chair and 27 Nobel laureates in economics, support carbon pricing. The consensus among economists for carbon pricing echoes the one among scientists for anthropogenic climate change. James Hansen, the scientist who sounded the climate alarm in 1988, supports carbon fee and dividend.

Carbon fee and dividend isn’t a silver bullet. It isn’t a sole, exclusive, one-shot solution. The climate crisis is too big and complex for any single measure. But a socially just carbon price is foundational to a permanent solution, and it’s one we can agree on and implement now, if our Congresspeople hear from us. Now matters. The International Panel on Climate Change tells us we have only 12 years to reduce GHGs by 50 percent to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5° C. Let’s take this no-regrets first step. We got into the climate mess through normal economic behavior, and it’s a big part of how we have to get out of it.

[1] See page 26 of the Office of Tax Analysis paper, Table 6, in the column entitled “Change in After-Tax Income, $583 Per Person Rebate.”



Raymond WelchRaymond Welch is a writer and energy consultant. His essay “Confessions of a Failed Energy Martyr” appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Terrain.org. His essay “My Father’s Widow’s Peak” appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Gettysburg Review.
Header photo by oneinchpunch, courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.