The Trump administration is thumbing its nose at international efforts to combat the pollution that causes global warming, but three Florida congressmen – all from low-lying areas where sea level rise is already impacting their constituents – are soldiering on the political battle to address climate change.
The three U.S. Representatives – Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch, St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist and Naples Republican Francis Rooney – are part of a larger group crafting the first bipartisan-backed climate change bill announced this decade.
All three share regional concern: Of the 25 American cities most vulnerable to sea-level rise, 22 are in Florida, according to research conducted by Climate Central.
“If we’re going to seriously tackle this urgent issue, then we’re going to have to work together,” Deutch told the Phoenix. “We are bridging the divide between Democrats and Republicans on climate change and sending a powerful message to our colleagues and the American people that bipartisanship is possible.”
Called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the bill would place a tax on carbon pollution (which comes from sources like coal and petroleum.) It would charge energy companies $15 for each ton of carbon their products emit, with the price per ton increasing by $10 each year. Its six sponsors say it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by one-third in 10 years, and 90 percent by 2050. Proceeds from the tax would go back into the U.S. Treasury, benefitting citizens. If enacted, it be the first carbon tax measure ever passed in the U.S.
“I think it’s good for the environment. It’s good for the economy, it makes economic sense,” says Crist, who was proactive on climate change issues when he was Florida’s governor. “It has those who are causing the problem appropriately pay for it. And it has the American citizen benefit from the resources that are generated by it. I mean, what’s not to like?”
Considering events like the extra-intense Hurricane Michael and the raging wildfires in California, Crist says passing the bill would not only make the environment cleaner, but safer.
The idea of a carbon tax has been pushed for years by a group called the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has grown from just a dozen chapters around the country to more than 400, with nearly one in nearly congressional district. Citizens’ Climate Lobby was highly influential in developing the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the U.S. House in 2016.
“We created this caucus because we wanted a space where Democrats and Republicans could work together on climate change,” said Deutch, who serves as chair.
Besides Deutch, Florida members of the 90-member caucus include Democrats Crist and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, along with Republicans U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, and Rooney.
Rooney calls sea-level rise “one of the existential threats that we all face” in the Sunshine State, but he isn’t backing away from his comment at a town-hall meeting last year in Bonita Springs, where he questioned how much humans have to do with climate change. What truly matters, he says, is that it’s happening and needs to be addressed.
This year, volunteers with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby have been to Washington trying to get national Republican buy-in on tackling climate change.
“Our main ‘ask’ is that they make climate a bridging issue rather than a wedge issue,” says Bradenton resident John Darovec, who volunteers with the group.
There is, however, a political trade-off in the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act that benefits industry; it’s a provision to restrict the government’s existing authority to set carbon pollution limits through the Clean Air Act. The Natural Resources Defense Council says that while the legislation maintains the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set standards for cars, trucks and other transportation, it would effectively bar such measures for power plants and industry for a decade or more.
The bill will be re-filed when the new Congress convenes in January, so changes might be made. Environmental groups say the legislation is a good starting point.
“The problem won’t be solved overnight, and this bill isn’t perfect, but it is a solid step in the right direction,” says Jonathan Webber, deputy director with Florida Conservation Voters. “With only 12 years left to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we welcome any bipartisan attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect Florida’s future.”
Two officials with the NRDC, David Doniger, director of the Clean Air and Climate Program and Derek Murrow, senior director of Climate & Clean Energy Program, surmised that even with the troubling provision that cuts some EPA power plant regulatory authority, the bill “reflects a serious effort to respond to the gravity of the climate disruption we are already experiencing and that will only worsen if we fail to act. Most importantly, it is supported by both Republicans and Democrats.”
Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, has evaluated the bill.
“What’s fundamental to reducing dangerous carbon pollution is for it to have a value, so that’s the piece that’s been missing” in other efforts, she says.
The most critical reaction to the measure comes from the group Food and Water Watch, which labeled the proposal “stale” and “a dangerous distraction” from more serious measures to reduce carbon emissions.
“This carbon tax bill amounts to climate denial, not climate action,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the environmental group, Food and Water Watch. “Emissions pricing schemes like this one are actually supported by the world’s largest oil and gas corporations because they do nothing more than entrench the status quo – an economy dependent on polluting fossil fuel.”
Some conservative groups are also trashing the bill, calling it a tax on your electricity bill.
“The tax will be hidden in the price of all goods and services,” complained Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Various versions of a carbon tax have been tried. According to the World Bank, some 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces are using some carbon pricing mechanism, either by taxing carbon or enacting a cap-and-trade system – where companies trade “pollution credits.”
Sweden imposed the first carbon tax in 1991, but analysts say that it was the introduction of a 2008 carbon tax in British Columbia, Canada’s third largest province, that has been the “most significant” in the Western Hemisphere.
Results are mixed on how successful it’s been.
A study conducted by the Duke University Energy Initiative in 2015 showed that emissions had dropped between five and 15 percent since British Columbia’s tax went into effect. The study also noted that public opinion has shifted – a majority of people opposed the tax when it was first proposed, but three years later, a majority supported the tax.
However, a 2016 report from Food & Water Watch labeled the tax a “failed experiment” and argued that its proponents have “significantly overstated the purported beneficial effects.”
In the U.S., Washington state could have been the first to enact a tax on carbon emissions, but voters rejected it last fall for the second time in three years. Unlike the proposed federal bill, the Washington state legislation was not “revenue-neutral,” meaning instead of the revenue charged to the energy companies going back to taxpayers, the funds generated would have been used to fund conservation projects, renewable-energy farms and struggling communities throughout the state.
Energy analyst Susan Glickman says the bipartisan support for Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act is “fundamental” to the recognition that climate change is a serious problem that the country needs to deal with, while acknowledging that the bill will likely “evolve” and take a different shape when it’s ultimately re-introduced in 2019.