The Russian war against Ukraine has served as the impetus to push America and the European Union away from its dependence on authoritarian petrostates. We need to go one step further and seize this opportunity to address an even greater global threat, climate change. 

On March 8, President Joe Biden banned imports of Russian oil, gas and coal in response to what he called President Vladimir V. Putin’s “vicious war of choice” in Ukraine. Britain joined the United States in declaring it would end Russian oil imports by next year. The EU plans to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year, steeply reducing — but not severing — energy ties to Moscow. The proposal is a dramatic shift given that 40% of the EU’s gas and 25% of its oil comes from Russia

recent report from the IPCC gives the most detailed look yet at the threats posed by global warming. The report, said Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, is “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people, and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”

For years, climate scientists have been sounding the alarms about the existential implications of climate change but seemingly to the deaf ears of our political leaders.  Do we need to drop bombs on the political capitals of the world, as the Russians are doing in Ukraine, to get them to take notice and act decisively to meet the greatest challenge of the 21st century?

In 2020, China (33% of global emissions), the United States (13%), the EU 27 (7%), India (7%), Russia (5%) and Japan (3%) were the world’s largest CO2 emitters accounting for two-thirds of global carbon dioxide (C02) emissions.  

So, what can we do to accelerate the reduction in the United States’ emissions of carbon dioxide?  

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.” A carbon tax that increases every year until emission 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.

The best way of implementing a carbon tax is via a carbon fee and dividend plan. This works by applying a fee (a carbon tax) proportional to the amount of carbon dioxide 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. Energy that was generated by solar or wind, on the other hand, would not incur a carbon fee and would become relatively cheaper. Other industrial processes which liberate a lot of CO2 and are contributing to our climate change problem, such as the production of steel, cement, plastics and fertilizer, would also be taxed under a carbon fee and dividend plan.

By returning all revenues from the carbon tax directly to U.S. citizens through equal lump-sum rebates (dividends), this plan protects the most economically vulnerable while not increasing the size of the government.

How does the carbon fee and dividend plan deal with China and its 33% share of global CO2 emissions? Alone, it doesn’t. But a carbon fee and dividend plan that also incorporates a border carbon tax adjustment would incentivize China to literally clean up its act. The Chinese economy is driven by exporting goods to the rest of the world. The United States imports more Chinese goods than any country. If China wants to continue exporting to us, any exports whose production emit an excess of CO2 would incur a border carbon tax, making them more costly and more difficult to sell in our country. This creates an incentive for all nations, not just China, to adopt similar carbon pricing if they want to sell their products at competitive prices in the U.S.

Almost another 14% of Chinese exports are sold to the European Union. As the Europeans are far ahead of us in taxing carbon dioxide emissions, it is easy to imagine the 27 nations of the EU and the United States working together to protect our shared Earth by both enacting a border carbon tax adjustment. 

In the past six weeks, we have seen that when a country threatens the global world order, as Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has done, the democracies of the world can indeed unite if the threat is deemed both great and urgent.  

According to the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, our planet is now warmer than it’s been in 125,000 years. The threat is not merely great, it’s an existential threat to the only planet we haveAnd it’s going to get a lot worse unless we urgently address it now.  

A carbon fee and dividend plan with a border carbon tax adjustment is the economic stick that not only strengthens our economic position relative to our geopolitical foes, China and Russia, but most efficiently and comprehensively addresses the climate change problem. We need to swing it aggressively.

Let’s demand that the politicians of this country emulate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine who is showing what real courage and leadership looks like. To the politicians of this country, I say, look beyond your two-to-six-year electoral horizons. Do something more important than you have ever had the pleasure of doing. Make solving the climate emergency your No. 1 priority. The best plan is a carbon fee and dividend plan with a border carbon adjustment. If you don’t seriously address this problem you will not only have failed to rise to the greatest challenge of the 21st century, but you’ll die a political coward and a selfish and shortsighted fool. 

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