On Climate Change: The Three Discussions Most Worth Having

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On Climate Change: The Three Discussions Most Worth Having

Mike Shatzkin
By Mike Shatzkin and 12/10/19

A bit over three years after having been able to shift things around in my life to dedicate serious time and effort to fighting climate change, I’ve digested a lot of new information and come to a few conclusions.

There is plenty to debate among climate change believers. People who are fully as cognizant as I of the challenges we face are on the opposite side of important political and policy questions. We find ourselves believing that the other side’s well-intended political positions are actually destructive. Since we share the same basic scientific understanding about CO2 and warming and the same goals, the conversations that inform each other are really needed.

One thing we broadly agree on but hardly ever discuss is that the root cause of all our climate challenges, as well as a lot of other environmental degradation, is overpopulation. This piece will not tackle that at all, but the cumulative environmental impact of so many of us humans is the CO2 produced by the fossil fuel we burn is inexorably warming the earth. The consequences of that are already being felt and point us toward human tragedy of unprecedented dimensions. That is the elephant in the room when we talk about climate change.

As a Democratic Party activist as well as a climate change activist, my first thoughts are about how public policy can address our challenges. In that context, there are three very active debates which demonstrate the points of serious contention among climate change believers.

The first stems from what actually is a consensus: burning fossil fuels causes environmental damage that we all pay for but which are not priced into the fuel itself. These are called “externalities” by economists. Externalities exist for “renewables” like wind, solar, and hydro and for nuclear energy as well. But none of these energy sources generate the CO2 that contributes to global warming and that drives climate change.

If you’re primarily focused on climate change, then reducing fossil fuel use is priority number one.

So the theory behind taxing fossil fuels, which does have almost universal support among the climate-aware, is to acknowledge the “externalities”, in this case often referred to the “social cost of carbon”. Doing that assesses the costs to their cause: fossil fuels.

That’s where the debate begins. Where people of goodwill part company is deciding what we do with the money, the revenue that flows to the government from levying a fee or tax on fossil fuels.

I have come down totally in favor a concept called Carbon Fee and Dividend (often referred to as CFD). The idea is backed by a range of organizations. The first, starting well over a decade ago, is the non-partisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Since 2017, the bipartisan Americans for Carbon Dividends and the originally openly Republican but now bipartisan Climate Leadership Council have pushed a different version of the same idea.

What CFD does is levy a fee on fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) when it enters the economy (at the port, the mine, or the wellhead). That raises the price of any energy (or anything else, like plastic) generated from that material. The “fee” revenue under CFD would be returned “in equal shares to everybody”. The precise formula to accomplish that objective varies with the proposal, but however the details are adjudicated, it results in most people — and, in general, the least affluent people — actually making money on the policy even after they pay their increased energy bill.

So the concept is very progressive. Most people, the poor, particularly, and the middle class, get more money back from the dividend than the price increases on energy that are caused by the carbon fee cost them.

That’s important for two reasons. One is that it addresses the widespread concern among activists that poor people not be carrying the burden of addressing climate change. This is a critical tenet of the concept called Climate Justice. The vast majority of poor and middle class people would get a monthly check from a CFD policy that would make them smile 12 times a year, even if they know their gasoline price is a bit higher as part of the bargain.

But the second reason is even more important: it changes the politics to make the policy both sustainable and extensible. Australia’s government taxed fossil fuels in 2012 without making the benefits clear to the taxpayers and because of the uproar over fuel cost increases had to repeal the tax. Now, just a few years later, Australia is suffering very obvious climate disruption but taxing carbon remains a political non-starter. If they had put dividend in with that tax nearly a decade ago, the heat waves they are having would create a clamor to raise it.

We all know the story of the Yellow Vests movement in France, where thousands are in the streets regularly protesting petrol taxes. But if 70 percent of the people were making money on the tax, that wouldn’t be the case. The French would be able to do what we will need to do: start the carbon tax at whatever level you can and then keep raising it. Because the true social cost of carbon is considerably higher than any currently proposed level of “fee” among CFD advocates.

There is another political reality in the way of enacting a fee-and-dividend policy. The longer one has known that taxing carbon is something to advocate, the longer one has had to make plans to spend the money. And many environmentalists woke up to the need to tax carbon years, or even decades, ago.

There are good ways to spend the proceeds (like targeting aid for the poorest areas most affected by climate injustice or subsidizing non-polluting energy) and bad ones (lowering other taxes in ways that would perhaps benefit the rich, as would happen with a reduction of taxable income). But no matter what you do, if it is not an equal dividend, the fee is going to be opposed and resisted by many and, like in Australia and France, that can get pretty ugly and counterproductive.

Advocating that carbon-fee money be “spent” other ways, even something as simple and progressive as the dividend concept, often leads to very real resistance. A couple of years of lobbying Congresspeople about this concept, which is presented now as a bill before Congress in HR 763 (the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019), have made that crystal clear. Many trusted environmental organizations are nixing the idea when Congressional staff raise it. And because responsible staff steers their Member away from propositions that core supporters oppose, this is slowing down the spread of understanding and support that would advance the concept.

It is ironic that opposition from the environmental community to the dividend idea is one of the biggest current barriers to getting CFD passed and implemented. Despite that, more than 70 Members of Congress have signed on as cosponsors of HR 763 including (at this writing), one retiring Republican. (The rest are Democrats.)

Climate change believers also do battle over nuclear power. “But what do we do with the waste” has been a convincing point of concern for years. But it loses some of its impact if it is balanced against the danger of climate change from CO2. Unfortunately, not all environmentalists and environmental organizations have reassessed the threats.

When CO2 becomes your top concern, you see very quickly that every time a nuclear plant is shut, anywhere in the world and without any exceptions, the immediate result is that we burn more fossil fuel and generate more CO2. Every single time.

And when you start looking at anti-nuclear arguments critically, many of them just don’t stand up. The two biggest myth-creators are the purported need for widespread evacuation in case of an accident and the threat from the waste. There will be no detailed debunking of those arguments here, but the real history of nuclear power is that the damage it is has done to humans and the environment is literally trivial compared to burning fossil fuels.

There are rigorous reporting requirements that documents every hiccup at any nuclear plant in the western world. In the 60-odd years of history of nuclear power there have only been three recorded “accidents” worthy of extended discussion. We know them all without having to consult a reference: 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukashima.

But, in fact, the short summary of those actually makes a powerful case for the relative safety of nuclear power. No fatalities or injuries or pollution resulted from 3 Mile Island. Aggressive studies of mortality rates for decades thereafter never claim even as many as 20 deaths from the “radiation” effects. The number is too small to be trustworthy. This tiny number of occurrences can’t possibly be within any reasonable margin of error. It is really speculation to attribute any deaths at all to 3 Mile Island.

Chernobyl was, indeed, a devastating accident that killed people. It also was in a nuclear plant without a containment building comparable to any that have been or ever would be licensed in the western world. And, in fact, a second reactor on the same site continued to run for decades, with people working at it, after the initial radiation from Chernnobyl dissipated. The delayed effects are debatable, but they certainly weren’t catastrophic. And it cannot be emphasized enough that this plant would never have existed in a regulated capitalist society. So that experience really teaches no lessons about the safety of nuclear power as it is practiced in North America and Europe.

Fukashima was a genuine tragedy. People died. People were evacuated. But none of the fatalities can be attributed to radiation. They were all caused by the tsunami. And the tsunami, which did generate real challenges at the reactor, did not unleash an uncontrollable radiation problem. There really was no radiation problem. In fact, it could be argued that the evacuation sparked by radiation fears was more aggressive than prudent and resulted in more disruption than was necessary.

The most reasonable interpretation of the totality of Fukashima should be to feel greater confidence in the safety of nuclear power today, even under extreme conditions. It was like a stress test in real life; much more convincing than any simulation.

By my observation, environmentalists have an age divide on this issue. My cohort (I’m 72) and those in the two decades that follow me include many anti-nuclear diehards. But younger people seem to accept that nuclear power is necessary to build a functioning post-carbon world.

And, in fact, there is next-generation nuclear technology that should be aggressively explored. That is really not happening in the United States because of entrenched anti-nuclear beliefs among environmentalists. But new technology, although very important, is a longer-term challenge.

The immediate imperative is to stop shutting perfectly-functioning nuclear plants and replacing them with new CO2 emissions. This is resulting from an unholy alliance of liberal politicians satisfying eco-constituencies and nuclear plant owners who find their costs uncompetitive with fracked gas.

It is almost never driven by fears of some new or emerging danger from an aging plant.

The calculations and interests of the negotiating partners — the politicians and the plant owners — do not “show work” to the public that factors in the CO2 effects or the true “danger” of keeping those plants going or even the incremental “waste” that would result from keeping them open.

A stiff carbon fee and dividend program would address the issue through the marketplace by making nuclear (which emits no CO2 and would not be taxed) more competitive, along with renewables.

So on the legislative and political fronts, the two big battles are about taxing carbon and returning all the money in a progressive way and overcoming the underinformed and frankly anachronistic opposition to nuclear.

The third agenda item is bigger and considerably more complicated. But it is also ultimately divisive among the climate-aware. It is called Climate Restoration.

All of the discussion about CO2 in the ecosystem is anchored in the metric of “parts per million” of CO2 in the atmosphere. For most of human history, that has been in the area of 280–300 ppm. When Bill McKibben was naming his environmental advocacy organization in the 1990s, he asked climate scientist James Hansen (the former NASA scientist most responsible for waking us up to the danger of CO2 through Congressional testimony in 1988) how many ppm we could tolerate. Hansen said 350, and that’s why McKibben named the organization he heads 350.org.

Now we’re at 410 ppm. We are doing this. We who are here right now.

The Climate Restoration advocates say we are obliged to deliver future generations a world that is 300 ppm, like the one my generation inherited. To do that, we not only have to stop emitting carbon, which has been an objective accepted as valid across the whole climate change movement, we also have to take a lot of carbon out of the ecosystem over the coming three decades.

How do you that? One common suggestion is “plant trees” (and stop cutting so many of them down), because trees “breathe” by removing CO2 from the air. But even if trees didn’t die and rot or burn, returning the CO2 they had removed to the atmosphere, we can’t plant enough trees. So we will have to take other more aggressive steps, artificial steps, to remove CO2.

There are literally dozens of techniques to accomplish “drawdown”, removal of CO2 from the air or water. Other techniques for carbon capture and sequestration focus on mitigating the bad effects of CO2 as it is being burned.

But both capturing the CO2 that results from burning and taking it out of the air or water can be characterized as “geo-engineering” and is seen by some as part of a devious plan to enable the continued burning of fossil fuels. And, indeed, these technologies do have support from some in the fossil fuel world who undoubtedly support them because they think their use will allow fossil fuels to continue to power our energy needs.

That is the very reason some environmentalists give to oppose carbon capture. But the fact that the benefit of these technologies might be misapplied to enable continued fossil fuel burning should not be sufficient reason to avoid developing capabilities we really need.

There is a book called “Drawdown” by Paul Hawken which has been out for two years that describes many of those dozens of fledgling technologies to remove carbon. These are among the techniques that enable Climate Restoration. The whole concept was the subject of a half-day conference at the United Nations in September 2019.

Spreading the gospel and factual underpinnings of Climate Restoration, why it is necessary and how we might achieve it, is not as straightforward as arguing the case for fee-and-dividend and nuclear. There is no specific legislation to champion or particular political stand to take. But we do have to start to get the world to understand the concept and accept the challenge. And soon.

The Climate Restoration literature I’ve read — including within a thoughtful action plan created by the same people who created the Climate Restoration event at the UN — suggests that what is required to get us to 300 ppm is about 90 trillion dollars over 30 years: 3 trillion dollars a year. For perspective, the entire US GDP is about $19–20 trillion. The global GDP is about 80 trillion. So this is a lot of resources and will require a global effort, but it surely can be done. And the costs of not doing it are incalculable, except we know they will certainly be much, much higher than taking action. We just won’t have any choice about those costs; they’ll simply make us all poorer. Or kill us.

So the government action — the public policy — to advocate is to foster education and understanding, here in our country and globally, that we have this Climate Restoration responsibility. It is in our interest to pursue this challenge seriously, and soon.

So don’t let the climate deniers depress you or bog you down. Engage in the debates that matter: CFD, nuclear, and Climate Restoration. There are aware people with important points to consider on all sides of these arguments. And it is the people who will debate these things who will save us, if we can be saved.

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