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My view: Court's delay of Clean Power Plan shows need for Congress to price carbon

In this March 16, 2016, photo, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, center, speaks as President Barack Obama, right, and Vice President Joe Biden listen after he was introduced as Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court during an announcement in the
In this March 16, 2016, photo, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, center, speaks as President Barack Obama, right, and Vice President Joe Biden listen after he was introduced as Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court during an announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.
Evan Vucci, AP

Just how disastrous is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to delay implementation of the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution?

Worse than most people realize.

Late last year in Paris, 196 nations agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The goal was based on the broad recognition that exceeding this threshold would result in consequences such as sea level rise, food shortages, worsening storms and extreme heat waves likely to outpace our civilization’s adaptive capability.

Meeting this marker would require the world to remain under a “carbon budget” of 2,390 gigatons of carbon dioxide emitted from 2015 onward. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from electrical facilities was viewed as an essential part of America’s strategy for staying within its portion of the carbon budget.

Upon closer examination, however, scientists have concluded that the true carbon budget is only 1,240 gigatons. In light of this new estimate, the court’s stay on the Clean Power Plan — delaying implementation for at least a year — could not have come at a worse time.

What are the ramifications of the new carbon budget?

It was previously thought we have up to 60 years to transition to a carbon-neutral society, but “at current rates, the carbon budget would … be exhausted in about 15 to 30 years,” said Joeri Rogelj, lead author of the study that was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. “These numbers definitely indicate that we should not just sit and wait, because then the window for staying within the budget would become vanishingly small within decades.”

But just “sitting and waiting” while our window for action closes is exactly what the Supreme Court is telling us to do.

Should we rely on executive orders, which are subject to court challenges and the whims of whoever occupies the White House, to preserve a livable world for our grandchildren?

We need a more resilient and permanent solution. Congress must enact legislation placing an effective price on carbon, the market-based approach favored by policymakers on both the left and the right.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby recommends a policy known as Carbon Fee and Dividend, whereby a steadily rising fee is placed on fuels based on the amount of CO2 they will emit when burned. All revenue from that substantial and transparent fee is then returned equally to all households as an energy dividend.

A study from Regional Economic Models Inc. found this policy would achieve a 52 percent reduction in CO2 emissions within 20 years. It would also strengthen the American economy, adding 2.8 million jobs.

Sounds great, you might be thinking, but what are the chances Congress will take bipartisan action?

They’re much better than you might think.

In September, Rep. Chris Gibson (R-New York) introduced a resolution (H. Res 424), now co-sponsored by 12 other Republicans, stating that climate change could have an adverse impact on our nation and that Congress should start working on solutions.

This unprecedented resolution was followed by another breakthrough last month: the formation of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Florida) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida).

The Supreme Court’s decision to delay the Clean Power Plan exposes the folly of relying solely on executive action to solve the most critical problem our civilization has ever faced. As more and more Republicans express a willingness to come to the table, Congress can and must work in earnest to enact a market-based climate solution. Carbon Fee and Dividend is the solution that can bridge the partisan divide.

Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.