What Are We Doing about Climate Change? Obstacles, Opportunities, and Legislative Action

The Threat

OVER SEVEN BILLION human beings are dumping more than thirty gigatons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere every year. Despite being a small fraction of the gasses that compose Earth’s atmosphere, CO2 has provided regulation and stability to our climate for eons. However, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution, changing the atmosphere’s delicate energy balance and altering the dynamics of our climate. The buildup of energy in the earth’s atmosphere and oceans has been slow, but the impact from the increase of CO2 is now accelerating. In addition, other gasses—such as methane—that are more effective infrared reflectors than CO2 are ending up in the air in increasing quantities every year. Moreover, there are feedback mechanisms in place that will exacerbate the problem, such as methane being released by thawing tundra and the melting ice cap over the arctic, which reflects less light back to space.

Anyone open to an honest evaluation of these obvious trends is aware that the climate is changing, and humans are largely responsible. I’ve heard climate change deniers argue that the models aren’t accurate enough and we must wait until the models are better to take action. But the models consistently err on the side of underestimating the rate of climate change and its impacts. The truth is the climate is changing, the rate of change is accelerating, and the threat is grave.

Others argue that humans are extremely adaptable and will survive after some predictable hardships. The problem is that climate change doesn’t exist in isolation of social and national security challenges. Large-scale migrations typically result in political instability in the receiving countries. For example, recent migration from Syria and Africa has harmed European cohesion and stability. Current migration through the United States’ southern border has introduced partisan flashpoints into US politics. If climate change proceeds as predicted and densely populated coastal cities are inundated, then the migrations of the past will be dwarfed, and social instability will explode. Climate change will include droughts, flooding, and large-scale food shortages. The political upheavals that result will be very dangerous in an era of weapons of mass destruction. In other words, climate change has the potential to not only result in large-scale suffering but could lead to potential extinction events.

Humanist readers likely know this already. What I can offer here, as a former energy consultant for traditional utilities and wind and electric power companies, is a sober assessment of the challenges we face. As a member of the US House of Representatives since 2007 (representing the ninth district of California), I can also offer some insight into the prospects for legislative progress in this vitally important area.

Obstacles to Action

For a long time climate change deniers claimed that what we were experiencing was normal. As evidence of change mounted, deniers retreated from strict to partial denial, claiming that although the climate was changing, humans weren’t the cause. But even that position is no longer viable except to the most ardently resistant, so the denial group has evolved to claim that even though climate change is happening and that humans may be causing it, we can’t take definitive steps to reduce emissions because the economic cost will be too great.

It’s easy enough to see why denial or in­action is so persistent and why it has so much sway in Washington, DC. The persistence has two bases. First, people don’t like change. We’ve lived our whole lives using carbon-based energy. It may have its flaws, but it has made day-to-day life better for billions of people. If fossil fuel energy were to be turned off today, there would be a reckoning. Carbon fuel has lifted the vast majority of people up from Thomas Hobbes’s version of the nasty, brutish, and short life of daily manual toil. For example, without fertilizers that are currently produced using fossil fuel energy, the earth would only be able to feed about half of its current population. Many jobs depend directly on coal, oil, or gas. Plus, we Americans certainly like our cars, central heating and air conditioning, and hot water in our homes. This personal inertia is difficult to overcome because it’s embedded in our lives and results in conformational bias.

The viability of the Green New Deal has been questioned, but there’s no doubt it has inspired thought and possible action toward the stated goals.

The second reason is more nefarious. Corporations and nations that produce fossil fuels and manufacture items that are used in fossil fuel production and distribution have a vested interest in keeping us dependent on their products. Countries rich in oil, such as Saudi Arabia, 
seem to know when to flood the markets with oil to keep America addicted. Just when we turn a corner and begin to reduce fossil fuel consumption, they open up the valves. At home, the fossil fuel industry, specifically oil companies and allied industries, has developed relations in Washington, DC, and state capitals around the country by using campaign contributions to insure not only their survival, but their opulence.

But it’s not only campaign cash that ensures power. People do have to vote for the “right” candidate. Vested fossil fuel interests enable this by first sewing doubt about science and downplaying facts, hiring a handful of scientists and paying them handsomely to claim the science on global warming and climate change isn’t settled. (Science is never totally settled, or it would be religion.) The playbook continues: have your favorite politician ask these scientists-for-hire to testify in front of congressional committees. Have highly paid media icons (like the hosts of Fox & Friends, Rush Limbaugh, or Ann Coulter) ridicule science and experts in general. Reinforce this with an occasional television advertising campaign. Make big, public donations to schools, churches, and hospitals for some great photo ops and highly visible name placements. These performances come straight from the well-worn playbook of the tobacco industry.

So, where do we go from here? Do we fall in line and accept our fate? Or do we work methodically to find real solutions to real problems so that future generations have a fighting chance to survive?

The Opportunity

Rational people will choose action, and, fortunately, real solutions and promising ideas abound. On the technical side, renewable energy production is cost competitive with fossil fuel energy production. Cost effective energy storage will be essential to make renewable energy replace fossil fuels. Nuclear energy has seen significant advances in technology that hold real promise for safe, reliable energy. Energy efficiency in transportation, lighting, building climate control, freshwater production, and food production is improving rapidly. These advances create more jobs per unit of energy produced or saved than fossil fuels, avoid boom-to-bust cycles common to fossil fuels, and result in a much healthier planet.

So what is preventing our nation from embracing climate action? Individual inertia slows things down, but economics is a strong motivator to change personal behavior. Sunken costs—the costs already spent on fossil fuel infrastructure and the enormous cost to decarbonize our economy—are big deterrents to change.

The Process

The legislative process in Washington is difficult and arduous, some say intentionally so. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 senators, each with an ego and most with a strong desire to get reelected. One of the first things to impress most new members is how varied the different viewpoints and opinions of members can be.

Congressional committees, such as the Ways and Means Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the many authorizing committees, each have their own jurisdiction, and turf wars can arise over legislative topics with overlapping jurisdictions. The committees of jurisdiction will hold hearings on issues like climate change in which they hear from experts on the subject. Legislation will then be drafted and sent to the legislative council, whose job it is to write bills as unambiguously as possible and either create or modify legal code, i.e., law. The bills are improved in a committee “markup,” during which amendments are proposed, debated, and then voted up or down. The committee product is then brought to the rest of the House where further amendments may be proposed and voted up or down. The final product is then either passed by the entire body or not. If the House and Senate pass similar bills, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the two versions into a single bill that both chambers can pass and send to the president for approval.

For appropriate action on climate change, several things need to happen. First, a reasonable amount of money must be allotted for research and development to improve all aspects of energy technology so we can reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of renewable energy and energy storage. Some fossil fuels will always be needed, so it will be necessary to continue improving carbon capture and advance ways to use or sequester the captured carbon. There is a significant amount of CO2 in the atmosphere already, committing the earth to significant, and possibly catastrophic change, so it will be necessary to develop methods to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The United States should research different means of reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth in case the climate starts to change so fast that more drastic action is needed.

Federal Investment

Spending money is a significant part of what a government does, but it’s irresponsible to spend money without raising revenue to pay for it. People don’t like to be taxed, so finding revenue acceptable to be used for what may seem like distant or abstract purposes will be challenging.

Further research and development will be needed to implement renewable energy, energy storage, nuclear energy, and carbon sequestration on a large enough scale to provide energy for our nation’s needs. This can be funded through investment tax incentives, energy production tax incentives, grants, and other federal programs.

Funds are also needed to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. New businesses must be created to retrofit homes and commercial buildings across the country. If electric vehicles replace gasoline and diesel vehicles, charging stations will need to be ubiquitous. If fuel cell vehicles become common, hydrogen stations will be required. The electric grid must be modernized to handle the changing electric flow and the growing grid must be secure. Public transportation that is safe, reliable, convenient, and affordable will be needed in cities and rural areas.

Generating Revenue

Clearly, revenue is required to implement the policies described. The existing revenue-generating methods such as raising personal or corporate income taxes or raising gasoline taxes will generate significant displeasure among those most strongly impacted by the fees and those who are doubtful about the need for action on climate change. That displeasure could, and most likely would, be used by vested fossil fuel interests and politicians who see political advantage in opposing such fees to torpedo any progress. Channeled opposition was used very successfully, for example, in creating a massive backlash to the Affordable Care Act despite the fact that a majority of Americans wanted the health care system in this country to be reformed when the legislative process began. The House did pass a highly detailed cap-and-trade bill in 2009, called the American Clean Energy and Security Act, but it was never taken up in the Senate due to focused opposition and is now considered a dead-end policy direction in Washington. However, California passed a local cap-and-trade law that appears to be working without harming the California economy.

Revenue methods that are market-friendly and feel fair and beneficial to people are needed. The market-friendly approach would consist of a cap-and-trade policy that doesn’t directly tax carbon emissions, but imposes nationwide limits on emissions and sells or auctions emission permits that can be traded in a well-regulated system. The nationwide limits would then be reduced gradually over time. The revenue generated from the permit sales would have to be used for infrastructure development.

The other revenue method is, of course, a carbon tax. In order for a carbon tax to be effective in reducing emissions it should begin with a fee that approximates the existing social cost of carbon—a quantity that will not impose too much of an initial shock to the economy. The fees would rise gradually and predictably over time to allow the economy to grow. A simple carbon tax was tried in Australia in 2012 but was overturned in 2014 when voters replaced the political party that had implemented it. Just this year gas taxes in France spurred the yellow vest rebellion. Any implementation of increasing the cost of carbon must be acceptable to the voters.

The most commonly proposed approach to imposing a carbon tax is to refund the revenue obtained directly back to the residents of this country in regular disbursements. People will likely find this acceptable if the program is implemented fairly and marketed properly. However, not all the money can be distributed to individuals because to successfully make the transition to a low-carbon and sustainable economy, there still needs to be sufficient funds available for research and development and for infrastructure upgrades. Between 20 percent and 50 percent of the revenue of a carbon tax should be disbursed for these purposes.

The revenue can also be used to strengthen our democracy, for example by having all the revenue disbursements to individuals go to all the residents of states that have consistently high voter turnout. In this approach, if a state has a low voter turnout, then no individual in that state will receive a regular check and all the individual disbursements from the carbon tax will go to resident of states with high voter turnout.

The key to success for a program that aims at a drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and will result in profound changes in our country is wide acceptance by the populace. This will require education, local organizing, and a clear and credible roadmap, which must include job creation and economic security. The program must also include the means to fight off the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to sabotage it.

Prospects for Progress

The 2016 election of Donald Trump dimmed prospects in the short-term for strong national action to decarbonize our economy, but the recent mid-term elections brought in many new representatives who are determined to enact change. The new Democratic majority is already moving in a direction that will develop policy initiatives that could be implemented in the future. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has announced the creation of a new select committee to explore policy solutions and showcase the technology available and economic future possible if decisive and well thought-out action is taken. The Select Committee on the Climate Crisis should educate and energize the American public on this issue.

Policy ideas such as a carbon tax with revenue disbursements to individuals as well as to R&D and infrastructure development are now being analyzed and debated in the committees of jurisdiction. A bipartisan group is coalescing to find policy solutions based on innovation, including all forms of generation that can produce electric power without producing carbon emissions and can garner support from across the political spectrum.

We must demand, inspire, legislate, and embrace rational behavior instead of waiting for massive catastrophe to force the human race to scramble for its very survival.

Much has been made of the Green New Deal that aspires to have 100 percent of US electricity generated by renewable sources within a decade and confronts many of the social ills that persist within our society. The viability of the program has been questioned, but there is no doubt that it has inspired thought and possible action toward the stated goals.

For my part, in addition to working with both Democrats and Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee to create legislation to effectively reduce carbon emissions, I will be proposing legislation this year to provide money for climate intervention research. Scientific knowledge of how climate intervention to intentionally cool the planet, for example by introducing sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere, should be developed to be used only if the impacts of the methods are well understood and massive disruption due to climate change becomes otherwise inevitable.

In addition to what’s happening in Washington, DC, states and cities are enacting their own laws to reduce carbon emissions. For example, many states have set energy portfolio standards that require electric utilities to decarbonize their generation sources according to ambitious schedules that are being successfully met.

Meanwhile, on the technology side, renewable energy generation is already cost competitive with fossil fuel sources and energy storage technology is improving in cost, weight, durability, and reliability. Electrical grid technology is advancing in parallel with changing demands. Nuclear energy, which will almost certainly be critical to decarbonize our economy, is seeing real advances in cost and safety with advanced reactor technology, including small modular reactors. The clean energy field is so promising that venture capitalists who once shunned the field are now investing. Solar and wind trade shows are vast and exciting. All this shows that significant progress is possible even without large national policy.

Humans are resilient and are moving to end the atmospheric carbon concentration jam we put ourselves in. But the threat of climate change is both ominous and abstract. It is abstract because most of the time, in most places, things seem normal, and it seems that things will continue to be normal until catastrophe strikes, perhaps in the form of an extreme weather event or wildfire, both of which we’ve seen in the past year. We can overcome this abstract mindset with rational behavior that compels us to analyze the current situation and take action. The steps needed are not only relatively painless but will actually make our lives better. We must demand, inspire, legislate, and embrace rational behavior instead of waiting for massive catastrophe to force the human race to scramble for its very survival.