President Obama’s encouraging words on addressing climate change must lead to action.
by Jon Hinck
Time will tell that the most important words of President Obama’s second inaugural address were on the subject of climate change. Among the key points, Obama recognized a responsibility to “preserve our planet” in the face of climate change and stated that “the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
He is right, and I thank him. I also know from experience that key responsibility rests with Congress and, therefore, on us. This is particularly true since aggressive opposition to this agenda item persists.
Decades of scientific research tells us that releases of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, gradually raise the global mean temperature. This will greatly disrupt climate and weather patterns that have prevailed over centuries.
I first heard of global warming in the 1980s. At that time, I was working for clean air and against acid rain and toxic pollution for the environmental organization Greenpeace.
The science was not new. For example, physicist Gilbert Plass in a July 1959 Scientific American article, “Carbon Dioxide and Climate,” predicted the rise of global temperatures. Plass wrote a half-century ago that “long-term temperature records will rise continuously as long as man consumes the earth’s reserves of fossil fuels.”
In 1996, after starting a law career, I looked more closely at global warming. On accepting a job to return to Greenpeace and take charge of the group’s worldwide program, I sat down and read new scientific reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Careful review of the science eliminated my doubts. I realized then that we are living on a dangerously warming planet.
In 2010, while serving as a Maine state legislator, I joined with legislators from states around the country in a coordinated effort to convince Congress to take action. That effort ground to halt in 2010 in the face of stiff opposition from oil and coal interests.
We had missed another chance. But as a 2010 satirical headline in the Onion stated, “Global Warming Issue From 2 Or 3 Years Ago May Still Be Problem.”
Three years later, and climate change is a greater problem. In 2012, America saw devastating drought, scorching heat, furious wildfires and breathtaking superstorms. Innocuous-sounding Hurricane Sandy was appropriately renamed the Frankenstorm.
The good news is that we have a better idea of what we can do. One primary object is to drastically cut emissions of carbon found in coal and oil. To do this I make two suggestions:
1. The primary way to remove fossil fuels from the energy equation is through energy efficiency. People must get the power needed with far fewer units of energy. The goal is hyper-energy efficiency. Fortunately, energy efficiency is the cheapest power source.
Implementing an energy-efficiency agenda requires shifting capital that traditionally goes to fossil fuel exploration and exploitation and building more power stations.
Those who make efficiency innovations should be rewarded to the same extent that new power providers have been historically enriched. With well-understood innovations, we could rapidly see a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in power demand.
However, with a more extraordinary commitment — like the days when America turned out Liberty ships in places like South Portland in order to fight World War II — 90 percent lower energy use is possible.
2. The best way to incentivize a transition is with a carbon tax.
I favor a “fee-and-dividend” approach. This would put a straightforward across-the-board fee on the carbon content of fossil fuels. The fee would be collected at the point where the carbon enters the domestic economy — for example, at the oil wellhead, the coal mine or the natural gas depot.
The proceeds should be distributed to Americans in the form of a dividend check (Alaska does this with some oil revenues) or be used to reduce the national debt. That’s it. No money for government programs.
In addition, to make sure that the carbon fee does not put America at a competitive disadvantage, the United States would put a border duty on products from countries that do not have an equivalent carbon fee. The “border adjustment” can also be used to compensate American firms that export carbon-intensive products to countries without carbon restrictions.
There are countless actions big and small we can take to respond to developing climate change, but maximizing efficiency and replacing carbon-based fuels are key.
We have an American president who says he wants to do something about this. We should take him up on the offer and support him in the battle.
Jon Hinck of Portland is a lawyer, former state legislator and campaign director for Greenpeace.