Guest commentary: Crossing the aisles in climate change |

Guest commentary: Crossing the aisles in climate change

Peter Westcott
Guest Commentary

Remember the ozone hole? Remember acid rain? What happened to those climate threats? Won’t the same thing happen with climate change? Won’t it just go away?

Those are good questions. Indeed, the United States is putting out less carbon today than in 2005, so it may seem like the problem will solve itself if we just ignore it. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that, but there is a solution if we learn from the lessons of these two previous climate problems.

In the 1970s, rain as acidic as vinegar would fall in parts of Europe and the American Northeast. Besides threatening crops, the rain was eroding statues and buildings. The culprit was sulfur dioxide coming from coal-burning power plants. President George H.W. Bush proposed a huge change to the Clean Air Act, which Congress passed in 1990. It was a market-based system known as cap-and-trade, which basically allowed a free-market approach and now has sulfur dioxide emissions down by 80 percent. Acid rain was put in the history books.

In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered a massive thinning of the ozone layer near Earth’s poles. Sunscreen, which is always important, became imperative. The culprit this time was chlorofluorocarbons, incredibly powerful at destroying the ozone layer and a ubiquitous compound in refrigerants and spray cans. The world reacted quickly, and the Montreal Protocol of 1987, signed by every country in the United Nations, required substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons. The ozone hole is slowly being repaired, and by 2080 it is expected to be back to 1950 levels.

Climate change is different from the ozone hole and acid rain in two main ways: It is an issue that divides our country, and it doesn’t have a quick technological fix. Yet we can learn from the past climate threats to apply a solution.

Currently we’re at an impasse because Democrats would apply mandatory carbon reductions and Republicans, if they wanted to address the issue, would want a free-market approach. The solution, supported by the fast-growing, nonpartisan Citizens Climate Lobby, is carbon fee and dividend, which gets the reductions through a free-market approach. Even those who doubt or deny climate change can support this idea because it creates jobs and grows the economy, according to a study done by Regional Economic Models Inc., a well-respected economic-modeling firm.

The idea is simple: Put a fee on carbon at its source, but instead of letting the government pocket the money or set regulations, the money is returned to individuals on a per-capita basis. In short, prices will rise on products with a large carbon footprint, but consumers will have more money to spend because of the dividend. The effect will be that consumers and industry will find carbon-intensive products relatively more expensive and will choose products that don’t have the carbon impact. A beer brewed in Rifle will be cheaper than a beer from Alaska because it doesn’t have the transportation (carbon) costs.

Consumers using their dividend to choose less expensive, local products will incentivize inventors and entrepreneurs to develop more efficient products and services; that’s what will produce the really big emissions reductions, down 50 percent after 20 years, according to the Regional Economic Models study.

The U.S. has a smaller carbon footprint today because natural gas is now cheaper than coal, thanks(?) to fracking, and natural gas has half the carbon footprint of coal. We can build on this advantage by carbon fee and dividend, which will make gas, nuclear and renewables relatively cheaper. Republicans can propose the change as a job-creating, economic stimulus, and Democrats can support it as a carbon-reducing measure. Like acid rain and the ozone layer, we can solve the climate-change crisis with little impact on consumers — through both a concerted effort and a free-market approach, which allows a regulatory certainty for industry and an opportunity for consumers to save money.

It’s slightly more complicated than outlined here — U.S. manufacturers will need some free-trade protection until other countries adopt similar policies, and the fee on carbon will need to steadily increase (along with an increased dividend to consumers) to keep a movement away from carbon, but the end result will be a solution similar to previous climate threats: a gradually improving climate with little impact on the public, although, like the ozone hole, it will be decades before we’re back to previous levels. For more information on the carbon fee and dividend proposal, contact the local chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby at

Peter Westcott is a member of Citizens Climate Lobby. He lives in Missouri Heights.