In the post-Brexit era of political hostility towards global treaties, we must reconsider our approach to dealing with climate change. Brexit revealed that the economic stresses climate change is sure to induce will undermine political support for mitigation measures that can be portrayed as harmful to a country’s economy.
When seen through this lens, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (Conferences of the Parties, or COP21) accord has three fatal flaws. First, there is no enforcement mechanism. Second, the committed actions do not go far enough. Third, the entire framework could unravel if any major country departs dramatically from its commitments.
It’s far too easy to contemplate failure scenarios. A country like China could try to escape a politically destabilizing economic crisis by reverting to inexpensive fossil fuels. Or the United States could fast forward destructive policies such as Keystone XL. There is little the community of nations could do in such scenarios, risking the tenuous progress made under Paris. Given the rapidly mounting consequences of carbon emissions, the world cannot afford stumbles like that.
Fortunately, there is an alternative path that would move the world decisively towards a low carbon future. The good news for the planet and for those suspicious of international treaties is that much can be achieved through unilateral action by the United States of America.
The first step would be for Congress to pass legislation that would institute a carbon tax that starts at $16 per ton and increases annually over 20 years to $50 per ton. To address concerns about the U.S. staying economically competitive, Congress would pass an import duty on manufactured goods from countries without an equivalent carbon tax. The import duty would phase in one year after the carbon tax and would increase in parallel. Similarly, U.S. companies that export goods to countries without an equivalent tax would receive a carbon tax credit so they can price their goods competitively. As other countries phased in their carbon taxes, the U.S. would lower its import duties and export credits for goods exchanged with those countries.
The import duty tax and export tax credit would initially be set so the U.S. did not put its manufacturing industries at a competitive disadvantage. If other countries do not follow our lead, after five years our government and other participating countries could ratchet up the pressure by raising the import duties and export credits.
Prior to passage, the U.S. would reach out to the other countries to invite them onto a similar track. While it’s no longer a unipolar political world, the U.S. is unquestionably a super power of consumption. If just the U.S. and the European Union or China reached an accord on this framework, they would exert sufficient economic leverage to encourage a critical mass of other countries to follow.
Compliance could be monitored through technologies inspired by the various, successful nuclear arms control regimes. Satellite sensors can now monitor carbon emissions on a granular scale.
These new taxes would generate considerable revenues that should be used first to address the economic dislocations they create. Give coal miners and others in carbon extraction industries vouchers for retraining. Next, reduce income taxes. Finally, we should know that even if we adopt the most aggressive decarbonization strategies possible, the genie is likely out of the bottle. The planet faces rising seas and increasingly chaotic weather that may displace hundreds of millions. We must help these climate refugees.
The response to climate action encapsulated in the Paris accords will reduce only at the margins the terrible consequences of our carbon-based era. There is no time for hopeful half-measures that will easily be destabilized by the climate-caused economic and political dislocations we already know are certain to come.
The 70 percent of U.S. citizens who accept the reality of climate change should know there is a viable path forward away from our current, tragic trajectory. The presidential election season is the time to demand action at town halls, in social media and at the ballot box. It’s time we put onto the agenda the practical, available steps to ensure future generations remember us with gratitude, not scorn.
Sam Pardue is the founder and CEO of Indow in Portland, which works to make “the built environment more energy efficient.”