It is fortunate for all 7 billion people on Earth that humans are finally learning new ways to produce and use energy. Examples are legion: hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, more economical wind, solar and hydropower, super-insulated buildings and fiber-optic communications to reduce physical travel and postal messaging.
Despite these innovations, global warming continues to bear down on us because of excessive reliance on carbon fuels. For tangible evidence, we need go no further than to the casualty insurance market where premiums are rapidly escalating for affected victims. Actuaries have no choice but to respond to the raw economic consequences of worsening tornadoes, storms, floods, fires, droughts, melting glaciers and rising sea levels.
This is no distant threat. Newly issued FEMA flood maps for York and Cumberland counties will soon raise premiums for thousands of Maine shoreland homeowners.
Despite the obvious need for a new energy trajectory, some politicians from the extreme right would convert global warming into a partisan conflict — as though the challenge of climate change should be labeled a “Democratic issue.” It is not. It is a human issue.
In times past, both parties have joined in needed environmental reforms:
— Republican Teddy Roosevelt, America’s “conservation president,” was one of the strongest environmental advocates in our nation’s history.
— In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act by a unanimous vote in the Senate and a House vote of 372-15.
— In 1970, Republican Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by his own executive order.
— In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, probably the toughest of all U.S. environmental statutes, by a unanimous vote in the Senate and a vote of 375-1 in the House.
— In 1972, Nixon’s veto of the Clean Water Act on grounds of its high cost was overridden by 52-12 in the Senate and 247-23 in the House. Members of both parties found the investment necessary.
Here in Maine, federal Clean Water funds and Clean Air Act rules were widely welcomed. State GOP leaders, including Harry Richardson, Horace Hildreth Jr., Jock McKernan and Jon Lund, knew that Maine, more than most other states, depends on its clean air and water. Without federal control over power plants to our west and without an infusion of federal funds to clean up our own lakes and rivers, we would continue to live in polluted conditions such as those now found in industrial China.
Sen. Ed Muskie, author of the nation’s clean air and water laws, grew up on the Androscoggin River. Sen. George Mitchell, the architect of 1990 expansions to the Clean Air Act, grew up on the Kennebec.
When these men were young, our rivers were open sewers. Houses in Rumford and businesses in Waterville were built to face the street rather than the putrid water.
When shorefront zoning and water quality laws took effect, when acid rain was controlled, and when Maine rivers began to run clean, waterfront real estate all over Maine recovered value beyond anyone’s imagination.
Today we face a much greater challenge. While global warming is real and threatening, it also presents Maine and our nation with a remarkable opportunity to lead the world in energy transformation.
The most effective public remedy is the most direct. How simple might it be to elevate taxes on carbon sources such as coal, oil and gas? Then step back to let American entrepreneurs in the world’s most creative economy develop advanced alternatives. Whether from solar, wind, hydro, wood or geothermal sources, whether from efficiency, conservation or digital controls, the United States could easily propel itself to the forefront of these emerging technologies.
Meanwhile, the revenue from carbon taxes could reduce taxes on earnings and wages to reward work, a human activity that we profess to encourage. Why tax so heavily the transactions that we support while taxing so lightly those that do us harm?
In September, David Chavern, chief operating officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful opponent of the 2009 carbon cap and trade bills, commented in an interview: “Why is there not a … legislative debate on cap-and-trade versus carbon tax? Carbon tax is much more efficient, more neutral … it doesn’t pick winners and losers.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has courageously voted against a measure to nullify EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. She was the only GOP senator to do so.
In September, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, focused his first Senate speech on the need to respond to climate change.
Americans are fed up with gridlock on this issue. Maine’s congressional delegation is uniquely suited to model alternative behavior. We urge them to unite to focus our nation on meeting both the challenges and the opportunities of climate change.
Congress should pull out all stops and the Maine delegation should lead the way — as it has done before.
Peter Mills, a lifelong Republican, is executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority and a former state senator from Somerset County. He was twice a candidate for governor in GOP primaries. Sharon S. Tisher, a lifelong Democrat, is a lecturer in the School of Economics and the Honors College at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.