On Black Friday, Nov. 23, the Trump administration released the legally mandated Fourth National Climate Assessment in hopes that a public distracted by a long holiday weekend would ignore its contents (Eagle, Nov. 24). The report, the product of 300 leading scientists in and out of government, unequivocally states that human activities — especially emissions of greenhouse gases — are the cause of the climate change that is negatively affecting the planet at an even more alarming rate than originally forecast.
After cataloging a litany of deleterious effects on society including declining crop yields, worsening public health, increased storm activity, rising sea levels, forest destruction and even threats to national defense, the report goes on to suggest that the damage to the country could be at least partially mitigated were the United States to immediately reduce its fossil fuel use and consequent greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. has been slow to embrace the seriousness of the climate change problem due to political obtuseness arising from the influence of special interests — including the oil and coal industries — on Congress, as well as a concerted effort to misinform the American public and to frame the issue as one of environment versus jobs. As an increasing body of scientific evidence becomes more and more difficult to discount, however, the search for imaginative incentives to wean the nation off fossil fuels has intensified.
One of the most promising concepts is the carbon tax, which multiple advocates like the Citizens Climate Lobby, local members of which met with Eagle editors this week, have been advocating. Put simply, the underlying idea is to tax carbon emissions based on energy sources' potential to produce them, in other words at the mine, refinery or port of entry to the country. The proceeds of the tax (or more accurately a user fee) would be rebated equally to the public in the form of a per-person dividend regardless of how much fossil-based energy they used. Most important, this kind of front-end surtax would encourage the use of alternative fuels by industry and private consumers to keep their own expenses down. A graduated imposition plan (one scheme proposes an initial tax of $15 per ton of emissions with a $2 increase per year thereafter) would minimize start-up shock to the economy. Advocates maintain that after some initial negative cost increases, the resulting reduction in carbon emissions would constitute a net economic gain for the country in terms of jobs and overall better health.
Since it is becoming politically untenable to remain a hard-line climate change skeptic, the carbon tax and rebate idea — being a marketplace-oriented approach — has attracted bipartisan interest on Capitol Hill. That is a promising step, but as the climate assessment made clear, this country and the planet have little time to waste while the wheels of legislative action grind away. A state-by-state and regional approach holds out the prospect of quicker enactment, and while a federal solution is optimal, it may be necessary for enough state action to occur to finally compel Congress to act.
On Beacon Hill, state Rep. Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg, sponsored a carbon tax/dividend bill that failed in the last session while gaining 59 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, and plans to refile it in January. New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont lawmakers intend to introduce legislation with the hope that all states in the Northeast could eventually form a regional bloc.
In the wake of the national climate report, the nonprofit organization Environment Massachusetts released its own update detailing climate change's impact on the region. It included extended warm weather that will contribute to the propagation of tree-damaging insects; parasitic infections of wildlife; increased tick-borne diseases; diminished ocean fish yields; worsening air quality; heat waves; sea level rise on New England coastlines and more frequent and severe storms.
The Bay State is a leader in the development of clean and renewable energy, but it is only one relatively small component of a national and global solution.While Massachusetts should explore a carbon tax along with other Northeast states, federal action is ideal. We hope that Democrats like Representative Richard Neal, who has expressed support for the carbon tax concept, will join open-minded Republicans in pursuing this promising concept on the federal level in the year ahead.