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Opinion: The planet’s on fire, and we need a carbon fee now

Most economists agree that a carbon tax ‘offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary’

SHARE Opinion: The planet’s on fire, and we need a carbon fee now
A grounded buoy at Echo State Park in Utah.

A marker buoy is grounded on the dried-up shore of Echo Reservoir, which is currently at 12% capacity, at Echo State Park on Sept. 16.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The recently released sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said our Earth is now warmer than it’s been in 125,000 years.

What about Utah? The 2021 summer here was the hottest ever recorded. Our 20-year drought has left the Great Salt Lake water level at its lowest mark since measurements began in 1875. And the foul air that has wafted over from record wildfires in California has us breathing the worst air in the world.

More generally, the increasing temperatures, larger and more frequent fires, hurricanes and floods, longer periods of drought, agricultural degradation, melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, and rising sea levels are all happening not just in the U.S., but worldwide, just as climate models have long predicted.   

Why is this happening? As the report again reminds us, climate change is unequivocally being driven by the burning of fossil fuels. 

In a moderate emissions scenario that features little change from today’s global-development patterns, average global temperatures will rise by 2.1 degrees Celsius to 3.5 degrees Celsius. This is well above the 1.5 degree Celsius to 2 degree Celsius limit that signatories to the 2015 Paris climate agreement agreed not to exceed, because to do so would be unacceptably risky. It’s very simple. We must act now.

Fortunately, the large reconciliation budget package currently being developed in Congress, if passed, would likely address one of the most urgent needs in getting to a carbon-free future: electrifying our cars and other vehicles and our buildings (heating and cooling). The current bill includes a clean energy standard.

More promisingly, an excellent bipartisan market-friendly idea, a Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal, is also under consideration. This plan is being supported by 25 Utah legislators

Carbon fee and dividend works by applying a fee (a carbon tax) proportional to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is liberated in any product’s production. The fee on fossil fuels, for example, would be assessed at its point of origin — a wellhead, mine or port of origin. Utilities generating electricity from the burning of coal or gas would have to pay more for them. Whereas, energy that was generated by solar or wind would not incur a carbon fee and would become relatively cheaper. Other industrial processes that liberate a lot of CO2 and are contributing to our climate change problem, such as the production of steel, concrete, plastics and fertilizer, also would be taxed under a carbon fee plan.

Most economists agree that a carbon tax “offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.” It is much more effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating temperature increases than the clean energy standard currently in the reconciliation budget package. 

A carbon tax that increases every year until emissions reduction goals are met, economists say, encourages technological innovation and large-scale infrastructure development. 

By substituting a price signal for cumbersome regulations, a carbon tax will promote economic growth and provide the regulatory certainty companies need for long-term investment in clean-energy alternatives.

Significantly, by returning all revenues from the carbon tax (fee) directly to U.S. citizens through equal lump-sum rebates (dividends), the carbon fee and dividend plan protects the most economically vulnerable while not increasing the size of the government. What this means is that the majority of citizens would actually end up richer. 

Finally, a carbon tax that incorporates a border carbon adjustment enhances the competitiveness of American firms that are more energy-efficient than their global competitors, and creates an incentive for other nations to adopt similar carbon pricing (if they want to competitively sell their products in the United States).

Carbon fee and dividend would make fossil fuels more expensive; that’s the point. It is in the global common interest that fossil fuel products are priced to reflect their true cost to society. We can no longer afford to allow fossil fuel companies to pollute our air with carbon dioxide for free.

Time is short. Republicans must support this transparent market-based approach to climate change. I encourage Sen. Mitt Romney to move beyond simply voicing approval for a carbon tax in the press, and instead to act with a sense of mission and urgency that would cement his legacy as the preeminent Republican legislator who rose yet again to the occasion when his country needed him. 

I welcome Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, leader of the Conservative Climate Caucus, to seize the moment and convince his caucus to support the Carbon Fee and Dividend plan as the alternative that best incorporates Republican principles. 

There should be no more important conservative value than conserving our shared miraculous planet for our kids, grandkids and future generations of humanity to enjoy. If we Republicans fail to support the climate legislation in the budget reconciliation package, we will have squandered an opportunity to help shape climate policy, which, as the sixth IPCC report tells us, we desperately need to implement immediately if we want to conserve the world’s environment as we know it.  

Now is the time for Utah’s congressmen and senators to open their minds to the multiple overlapping realities of climate change, and to reflect upon the long-term interests of Utahns, Americans and all the denizens of the world.

This is no time for passivity. Throw your political weight behind the Carbon Fee and Dividend plan as the best approach to climate change and support the budget reconciliation package, even if it contains some parts that you don’t prefer.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. This is our reality. And It’s an emergency. Our planet is on fire, and the conflagration is only going to get worse unless we act decisively now.  

Dr. Justin Thulin is a retired physician who practiced in Salt Lake City.