March 11, 2024

Time to Wake Up 291: Pathways to 1.5 Degrees

Mr. President, I am back again with the old battered ‘‘Time to Wake Up’’ graphic here. The Smithsonian can’t have it quite yet.

This ‘‘Time to Wake Up’’ climate report starts with the unfortunate proposition that we are in terrible danger on climate. Obviously, a critical part and an essential explanation of the danger is that the Republican Party has been turned, by fossil fuel industry dark money, into little more than the political wing of the fossil fuel industry, slavishly dependent on the fossil fuel polluters to fill up its super PACs and shameless about parroting the polluters’ obnoxious lies.

But all that happens in the political world; where the danger gets real is in the physical world. And a recent study suggests that we have, perhaps, already blown through the 1.5 degrees of world heating safety limit. That 1.5-degree limit was always just an estimated upper bound. Unlike many estimates, it could have been too high. It could be that the true safety barrier was always below 1.5 degrees. But in any event, assume that it actually is 1.5 degrees, which is sort of the midpoint of the estimates.

Well, it is starting to look like we may be losing even against that metric. Here is a chart that summarizes over a thousand different projections that have been done from different sources as to where our CO2 emissions are going to take us. It is actually more than 1,200 different scenarios. Some of them take global temperature increase over 5 degrees of increase, which will lead to disruption on an astonishing scale that leaves many parts of the planet uninhabitable, as presently experienced.

So there are an awful lot of them. Some of them, we have already made decisions that make them impossible to achieve. Some of them are essentially dead letters. If you look at the ones that are still viable and at the ones that—this is the 1.5-degree safety barrier.

If you look at those 1,200 scenarios and you look at the ones that are still viable and get us, at some point, back under 1.5 degrees, do you know how many of them there are? Eleven. Out of 1,200 predicted scenarios, 11 are all that is left to keep us at some point below 1.5 degrees. Almost all of them blow significantly over 1.5 degrees and then come back down, which makes investments in carbon capture extremely important. But that is not a whole lot of shots out of 1,200 scenarios that we started with.

And each of them is ranked by where we are on the different components that get us there: carbon removal technology, carbon removal with land interventions—planting trees and so forth—carbon intensity reduction, energy demand adjustment, and less methane. In every single one of those categories, these are ranked as challenging. None of this is easy. All of it is going to require real effort, real diligence, and serious attention to the problem.

So we are not in good shape. And that is the sad and bitter news. We could have been in good shape. Back in 2007, 2008, and 2009, there was bipartisan work happening on climate change in this Chamber all the time. And then came the Supreme Court’s wretched decision in Citizens United and the instantaneous response by the fossil fuel industry to flood politics with its money and the instantaneous response by Republicans to abandon all of their bipartisan climate work and pitch us into a lost decade-plus on climate action. That is where a lot of these that could have gotten us out of trouble disappeared in that lost decade of fossil fuel dark money blocking American democracy’s ability to respond to this problem.

So to stay below the 1.5-degree safety threshold requires two measures. Again, these are estimates. It could well be that we need to do more than this, but these are the ones we are working with.

One is reducing emissions by roughly half by 2030. And the other is reaching net zero by 2050. So here is the latest estimate of how we are doing with respect to the 2030 50-percent reduction goal. That is what this line is. That is 50-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. And here is where we are. And here are a bunch of different scenarios and how they end up.

The only one—the only scenario that gets us to this goal by 2030—here is 2030, if you can’t see it from the television—the only thing that gets us there is a carbon fee, putting a price on carbon emissions so that it is no longer free to pollute. Let’s say we go ahead with a carbon fee but part of the IRA gets pulled away—that is this purple line—we miss by a little. Let’s say we go with the clean electricity standard instead of a carbon fee; we miss by more. Let’s say that we expand the IRA—do more of that positive investment through the IRA but without a carbon price—we miss by even more. Here is where we are under current law—this red line. Here is where we are under current law if the EPA’s proposed emission rules go into effect. That is our current likely outcome.

And as you can see, that is a long way from 50 percent by 2030. That blows through it sometime after 2035. If there are no new emissions rules just under the IRA, we are all the way out to 2040 before we cross that safety threshold. And if we do what our Republican friends, at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, are threatening to do, which is to repeal the IRA and block the new emissions rules, you are out here. And who knows when you get to 50 percent.

So to hit that first target, we have to wrap our minds around carbon pricing—pricing polluter emissions. Polluters should pay for the pollution they cause. It is not complicated. But they have been able to get away with it. Of course, if you are living in a polluter money la-la land, none of this is real to you.

And the numbers that matter to you are how much money get poured into your super PACs by polluters, not what the scientists are carefully analyzing and saying and modeling. But if you are out of climate-denial polluter la-la land, and you are trying to grapple with this as a real problem in the real world, carbon pricing is essential. So where are we on that?

Well, I have two bits of good news. One is that, just like many major corporations do, the Biden administration has put an internal price on carbon at a very respectable $190 per ton. And the Office of Management and Budget—the OMB— has given guidance to executive Agencies to build that internal price on carbon into all their relevant decision-making. What is an internal price on carbon? It means that the government’s decisions have to bake into their decision-making—the $190 per ton price on carbon. If you are buying fleets of cars, you compare the emissions, and that goes into the cost equation. If you are setting the price on land use of various kinds—like drilling wells—you bake in the $190 per ton. In regulatory decisions, of course, you would do that.

So it is a big deal, and it is part of the good news. Of course, the question is: How will the executive Agencies comply? The OMB has issued its guidance—boom, done. It was issued in September of last year. The $190 per ton went active in December—boom, done. But it is time now for all the executive Agencies to react and respond and comply. And that is what we haven’t seen yet. So we are looking into that as an oversight matter to try to make sure that the executive Agencies are doing their best to comply with the OMB guidance as to the internal price on carbon. So that is good news item 1, assuming implementation is not ineffective.

The second good news item is that the European Union—our friends across the pond in our Atlantic alliance—are locked in to a carbon border adjustment mechanism, a tariff mechanism called CBAM, Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. The further good news is that the United Kingdom has announced that it has made the decision to join the EU in that same CBAM program.

Why is that good for us? It is good for us because this will create significant pressure here at home for a price on carbon in the United States because without one, if we don’t have a proper price on carbon here in the United States, it will be very, very, very difficult for American companies exporting to the United States and to the UK to avoid those carbon tariffs. We will be paying tariffs to the UK and to the EU whenever our production of goods is more carbon-intensive than theirs. One of the ways you solve that is by adopting a carbon price. Then you get into the club, and you don’t have to pay the tariffs any longer.

So the tariff pressure on American businesses ought to disrupt significantly the general political indifference of the American corporate sector about the fossil fuel industry’s political hegemony over Republicans. That could open a potential pathway when the steel industry, the aluminum industry, the chemical industry, the cement industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and others are coming to their elected representatives and saying: Why am I paying this tariff? What is up with that? Why do I have to do that?

The answer from our Republican friends is that it is so the fossil fuel industry can keep polluting for free. I don’t think that is going to sell well in other board rooms. So that creates a little bit of industry-on-industry counter pressure. With any luck, that will be good enough to help us pass a proper carbon fee.

By the way, I happen to have a bill for that. It would do all of those things. It is called the Clean Competition Act. I would commend that to the administration’s attention. The Biden administration seems to be shedding what was initially anti-CBAM skepticism. It has seemingly abandoned an effort to undercut the CBAM with a weak so-called steel and aluminum arrangement that deservedly belongs in the bin as a climate response. I hope very much the administration will begin developing a positive response to the CBAM, and there is my bill as a model for them to take a look at.

If we do this right, it spares American exporters paying these tariffs. That is a good thing. It also supports a global pressure against carbon pollution that puts us on a potential path to climate safety that we are not on now. Together, those two pieces won’t match a full, proper price on carbon, as proposed in my separate pollution fee bill, which I also commend when we get to a full, proper price on carbon, but it will get us a good ways there.

While we are at it, we could add carbon pricing on luxury aircraft travel emissions to reduce those pollutants. There is no reason that somebody sporting around in a private jet shouldn’t be picking up the tab for the pollution they are leaving behind. We could add carbon pricing on shipping, which many of the leading shipping lines actually support. So we have a constituency to get this done in the industry.

Those two things would help make more progress, and, yes, I have bills on each. But ultimately, we need to stop the fossil fuel industry’s dangerous and fraudulent pollute-for-free business model by making them pay to pollute, which is what they should be doing as a basic economic market theory principle.

But instead of obeying economic market theory, they are floating on a subsidy that the International Monetary Fund has estimated at over $600 billion with a ‘‘b’’—billion dollars— every single year. It makes it tough for renewables to compete against a $600- plus billion subsidy every single year.

By the way, it also makes it easier to throw a few million dollars into controlling Congress if you are protecting a subsidy of $600-plus billion every single year. So there is this conflict between free market principles and fossil fuel subsidies. Unfortunately, our Republican friends inevitably resolve that conflict in favor of fossil fuel subsidies, while conveniently taking billions of dollars in fossil fuel political money.

Let me close by turning to methane. This graphic talks about economy-wide CO2 emissions in various climate policy scenarios, but methane is over 80 times as dangerous in the short term as a greenhouse gas than CO2 is. Folks, we have been disastrously bad at handling those methane emissions. Indeed, for years, EPA collected and reported artificially low methane numbers that were not real—were not even close to real. The EPA methane effort was half-baked, ill-informed, and hapless.

But something has changed. Now, we can spot methane emission sources from satellites. We can measure the intensity of the methane leakage. And there is a new methane fee on industry methane leaks from my bill, which got into the IRA, and there is a new methane reg from EPA. The administration has announced a methane enforcement task force to use that new technology and find and fix and finish major methane leaks.

 If we can do that in this country, then we can go to the next COP with a program to have all international methane leaks found, fixed, and finished. If we do that globally, that is a very big step towards a pathway to climate safety.

Like the social cost of carbon, this plan—the methane enforcement task force—is set, but the implementation is still unknown. A rapid, robust, and efficient enforcement group could really make a difference in getting dangerous methane leaks plugged. A sloppy and indolent group that follows the ‘‘interagency process’’ rule of moving at the speed of the slowest bureaucracy would be a real disappointment. So here again, we are doing oversight.

 Put these things together—a proper and well-implemented internal social cost of carbon made effective across all relevant Federal Agencies for all relevant Agency decision making; plus a positive response, not a weak sister response, to the EU-UK CBAM carbon border tariff; plus a tough, multi-Agency crackdown on industry methane leaks—and this trajectory towards climate safety begins to get more possible.

Unfortunately, we just had bad news from the EPA on their power plant pollution rule. If you can believe it, their rule, which has been months and months and months in the making, will regulate coal-fired power plants, which are dying out on their own, under their own sheer dead economic weight, and they will regulate new gas-powered power plants, which aren’t built and therefore don’t have any emissions, but they won’t be regulating in this rule the part of the power plant market that this year and in all future years will produce the majority of the emissions from that sector.

It is the biggest piece of the power plant emission sector, and they are simply not going to regulate it. That piece is the existing fleet of gas-powered power plants. It is really hard to see the logic of giving that free pass to the major polluting sector of the power plant emitters, and it sends a terrible signal about the seriousness of the Agency.

So let us hope that rule is a unique embarrassment and not a broader signal of weak, even pusillanimous, EPA administrative effort on climate.

The diligence with which the methane task force and social cost of carbon are implemented and the positivity of the U.S. response to the CBAM need to send a much more serious signal, as should all future EPA rulemakings on power plants, vehicles, and other large sources of carbon pollution.

We are at a tipping point right now. When you get down to 1,200 different scenarios where only 11 remaining ones still get you near a climate safety pathway, you have to cut the loaf mighty thin. Making sure that we get this right, that we get onto one of those pathways, is going to require a carbon fee. It just is.

By the way, that is what conservative economics tells you should be done. You can go to Milton Friedman, the high priest of free market economics, and he will say that if you are involved in making a product that involves polluting or some other what they call negative externality in economics-ese, you have to bake that pollution cost, bake that negative externality into the price of your product. If you haven’t done that, you are being subsidized. If you are being subsidized, that ain’t market economics.

So the principle is right for this. Fairness is right because you should not be able to pollute for free, particularly like the fossil fuel industry does, particularly creating the kind of harm they are creating. And, of course, there is this other question of making sure that our planet remains habitable in the manner that we are used to for our children and our grandchildren.

Again, all of that is doable. All of that is doable with a price on carbon emissions. And there are not scenarios to take us down that pathway to climate safety without that carbon price.

I yield the floor.