December 12, 2018

Time To Wake Up: COP24

As-prepared for delivery

Mr. President, this week, nations of the world are gathering in Katowice [cat-oh-vee-za], Poland, to review — and we hope amplify — their commitments to reduce carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement, and to discuss how they will report and verify reductions in carbon pollution.

The U.S. is technically present in the form of a small delegation, but American leadership on climate change is decidedly absent.  Why?  Because the government of the United States of America has fallen under the political control of the industry most responsible for this mess.

American leadership was essential to forging the global consensus on carbon emissions in the original Paris Agreement.  I know because I was there in Paris in 2015 as Secretary Kerry and the U.S. negotiating team worked to seal the landmark pact.

What a pathetic difference a few years make.  In 2017, President Trump announced that the U.S. would become the only country in the world to turn its back on this agreement.

The U.S. abdicates its leadership just as the scientific warnings of the dangers of climate change grow clearer, and grimmer.  In October came a new report from the world’s scientists working through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Last month, the federal government released its own sobering news about the worsening risks climate change poses to our nation and our economy.  Our National Climate Assessment warned of hundreds of billions of dollars in losses due to climate change ––if we don’t act to curtail carbon emissions.

Trump’s responded first by describing his own “very high levels of intelligence,” but then simply denied all the science because, he said, “I don’t see it.”

Well, guess what?  Pope Paul V didn’t “see it” when Galileo demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun.  That didn’t change the astrophysics. The climate science, laid out in black and white by Trump’s own government, is that our planet is heating up due to our use of fossil fuels.  The science is even more incontrovertible than when Donald Trump said it was “incontrovertible” in 2009.  Saying he now doesn’t see it, is the very definition of denial. “Willful blindness” would be another term.

The takeover of our government by fossil-fuel forces is having very real consequences in U.S. emissions numbers.

After years of decline, U.S. carbon emissions rose in 2018, increasing by 2.5 percent.  This of course coincides with the Trump administration’s efforts to delay, repeal, and weaken rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants, oil and gas wells, industrial facilities, and vehicles.  Of course all of these industries share the blame for not cleaning up their mess on their own, as well as for pushing the Trumpsters to weaken their safety regulations. 

Chinese carbon emissions increased in 2018, as did Indian emissions.  Among major economies, only the European Union saw its emissions decline in 2018.  This is why international summits like Poland are so important—the world urgently needs to correct course, and we can only do so if countries together do their part to reduce emissions.

According to the IPCC, to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to cut carbon emissions to 50 percent below 2010 levels by 2030, only 11 years from now, and we need to hit net zero emissions by 2050.  The IPCC report calls pricing carbon the “central” policy that will allow us to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less. 

If you’re sincere about market capitalism, where the costs of a product need to be in the price of the product for markets to work, this is pretty obvious.  Where this gets difficult is if you’re a fake free-marketeer who’s really fronting for the fossil fuel industry.  But if you’re not faking it to cover for the industry who funds your party, it’s pretty straightforward economics: you put the public harm externalities into the price of the product. 

The good news is that many governments—from cities, states, and provinces to countries and regions—are already pricing carbon.  This chart shows the various governments that have set a price on carbon, either through emissions trading (in green) or a carbon fee (in purple).

The prices vary.  Sweden, for example, charges almost $140 per ton of carbon emitted, covering nearly 50 percent of the nation’s emissions. 

The Canadian province of British Columbia enacted a carbon fee in 2008, rising over time to its current price of $35 per ton.  In the four years following the British Columbia carbon fee, fossil fuel use decreased by 17 percent in the province, compared to a 1 percent increase in the rest of Canada. 

And British Columbia’s economy grew faster than that of any other Canadian province.  Why would it not?  One hundred percent of the revenues raised from British Columbia’s carbon fee are returned to taxpayers in the form of other tax cuts.  And 70 percent of British Columbians support the policy.

So what about the U.S.?  California has put a price on carbon via an emissions trading system, as have the nine Northeastern states, including Rhode Island, that are members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.  For the moment, the prices in California and the RGGI states are still relatively low, around five bucks for RGGI.

Senator Schatz and I have introduced an American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act to assess a carbon fee starting at $50 per metric ton of emissions in 2019—the mid-range of the Office of Management and Budget’s 2016 estimates of the “social cost of carbon,” the long-term damage done by carbon pollution.

Our market-based proposal is an appeal to true conservative Republican colleagues.  But the fossil fuel industry keeps a stranglehold on the Republican Party, preventing climate action, even using market principles.

Things are unlikely to change as long as millions of industry dollars slosh around Washington, protecting this corrupting industry from having to account for the costs of its pollution.

America is called the “indispensable nation,” and American leadership is indispensable if we are to achieve a global response to a global challenge.  But American leadership is lacking because the dark money and sleazy operatives of the fossil fuel industry today control the Trump administration and the Republican Party.  There used to be a guy in this body who said, “Country First.”  We could use a little of that now, in this tragic Trump sleazefest. 

It is time to wake up.