March 18, 2020

Carbon pricing represents the best answer to our climate danger

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, represents Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate. James Slevin is president of the Utility Workers Union of America.

One of us is a labor leader from a union whose members are hard at work in all facets of energy generation, from coal-fired and nuclear power plants to natural gas and renewable energy systems. The other represents a coastal state at grave risk because of climate change. We have come together in an unusual but badly needed alliance to argue for a path forward to address the twin threats of a changing climate and growing economic inequality.

That path forward includes imposing a price on carbon — not the usual position for the leader of a union whose members work in the energy industry. Indeed, this represents the first time an energy-sector union has announced support for a carbon price.

The path forward also features a new, and newly respectful, way of talking about the men and women who took on the difficult and dangerous tasks of producing such fuels for our economy — not the usual rhetoric from environmentalists who have too often dismissed the contributions of these workers and diminished the threat to their livelihoods.

There should not be, and does not need to be, a trade-off between protecting our planet from destruction and supporting workers who have spent their livelihoods in carbon-intensive industries that also sustain the economy.

The answer is imposing a price on carbon and using the revenue in a way that helps workers, families and communities.

Pricing carbon is the most powerful and efficient way to reduce carbon pollution. Charging big corporations a price for their carbon emissions — as many other countries around the world already do — would generate abundant revenue to provide economic security for coal workers, their families and the communities they call home.

A price on carbon makes the transition period to lower-emitting energy sources less harsh than it would be under raw and sudden market conditions; miners and power-plant workers will be less at risk. In other words, a carbon price could mean the difference between a controlled descent and a steep crash.

By way of example, carbon-capture technology could offset emissions and extend the safe operating life of fossil plants and fossil fuels. Putting a market price on carbon will provide an incentive to develop that technology, transforming carbon dioxide into a useful commodity rather than a waste product.

However, it is not enough just to manage an orderly transition and to rebate carbon-fee revenue to consumers, as is commonly proposed. It is also important to honor the workers who mined the coal and operated and maintained the power plants that built the America we have today. For much of the past century, coal generated more than half of the electricity that powered our modern lives. We Americans have all enjoyed the economic wealth and power built by these women and men.

How to best honor them? First, we should honor the promises made to them about their pensions and health plans. Too many plans have been left underfunded or broke after companies abandoned their commitments. We should use revenue from the carbon price to make those pensions and health plans whole, and make workers eligible for these benefits whenever plants close.

What about something similar to a GI Bill college benefit for these workers and for their children? With a carbon price, we can afford it, and we could show our appreciation and respect in a tangible way.

We could fund the economic redevelopment of towns and counties that depended on mines or power plants. It is important that we provide not only workers, but also the communities they call home, the opportunity to remain vibrant places where families live and work — not municipal tombstones abandoned to cold market forces.

Think of it this way: These men and women undertook the difficult and dangerous jobs that made America great. Look at them as our energy veterans; they won the world war for economic dominance and powered the American Century. As new technologies take hold, and we power into a new American Century, they must not be left behind.

In our divided country, a sad and unnecessary part of our national climate conversation is its failure to respect the economic value our energy veterans created. Too many good people feel abandoned and disrespected. There is a simple human proposition that hard and successful work deserves appreciation and fair treatment. Let’s honor that proposition.

A carbon price represents the best answer to our climate danger. It also makes it affordable to do the right thing and help bind our country together. We should seize that chance.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse and James Slevin