At long last, we’ve finally reached a point in our societal discourse where the question of whether anthropogenic climate change is or isn’t happening is a bygone conclusion. Most major players in the debate can reluctantly acknowledge that, yes, climate change is real and yes, something must be done about it. Within the beltway, the shift on the political right toward accepting the reality of climate change is best exemplified by the recent formation in the House of the 64-member GOP-only Conservative Climate Caucus, which will ostensibly seek to educate members on climate issues (although the sincerity of these members should be taken with a grain of salt). We’re also seeing hints of a sea-change in the private sector, a traditional source of opposition to climate action, as more and more companies realize that green technology is good (and potentially very profitable) business. Even the giants of the fossil fuel industry see the writing on the wall and are beginning to invest in renewable energy, although this isn’t to say that oil companies will stop drilling any time soon.
While recent movements in this space are promising, we still shouldn’t expect Republicans and Democrats to break out into a spontaneous round of God Bless America on the Senate floor after passing groundbreaking climate legislation. Far from it. The question policymakers now face is of a different nature: now that we acknowledge that climate change is a thing, what are we going to do about it? And this proposition is a much harder question to answer.
If this question was posed a decade ago, the answer from both activists and lawmakers would clearly be carbon pricing, either in the form of a carbon tax or an emissions trading system. Once seen as an attractive policy tool that could form the cornerstone of potential bipartisan climate legislation, efforts to implement carbon pricing measures have come under fire in recent years from activists, business interests, and policymakers alike. Concerns with the impact of carbon pricing measures on historically marginalized communities, along with a desire to take more aggressive climate action, has led the Democratic Party’s progressive wing to largely abandon carbon pricing in favor of more ambitious command-and-control mandates such as broad expansions of the Clean Air Act and more stringent technology standards. And in an era where very little bipartisan legislation gets passed, why not swing for the fences?
Proponents of carbon pricing now face a dual challenge: crafting an effective market-based policy that can also satisfy the concerns of environmental justice advocates and progressive Democrats. In doing so, they must also minimize economic losses enough to retain the Republican votes necessary for passage through Congress.
Given the likelihood that Democrats lose the House and possibly the Senate in the 2022 midterms, the Overton window for passing carbon pricing legislation, perhaps the only politically feasible option for meaningful climate action, is rapidly closing. A number of Senate Democrats seem to understand the urgency of the situation, most notably Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who have introduced a potentially groundbreaking piece of legislation in the Save Our Future Act. The bill would implement a price on carbon emissions while including generous stipulations to push the revenue from the carbon tax to disadvantaged communities, an addition aimed at winning the support of influential environmental justice advocates who have the ear of progressive congressional leaders. Should the 117th Congress squander this opportunity, we may miss out on passing real climate legislation for years to come, time we cannot afford to lose.
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