An increasing number of voices — locally and worldwide — from the faith community are urging all of us to address the threats of climate disruption caused by humans. Perhaps the most influential international voice is that of Pope Francis.
His recent Encyclical Letter (Laudato Si) has a clear message: It is our moral responsibility to preserve a habitable planet for future generations.
In the letter, he recognizes that there is overwhelming scientific evidence of human-caused climate disruption now, and that if we do not act soon, the potential for catastrophic problems in the future. Pope Francis’ message stresses the need for dialogue followed by action. He emphasizes that many of the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change fall predominantly on the powerless — the poor and the very young. It is our moral responsibility to protect these people and all of the diversity of life on Earth.
Pope Francis has come here to spread this message. His address to a joint session of Congress, followed by another address to the United Nations, highlight our responsibility to act. He also states this clearly in his Encyclical Letter:
“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
One of the most important themes of Pope Francis’ message is that we all need to work together, without partisan bias, and forge a consensus solution. In the United States, we have been anything but united. The market is beginning to act as renewable sources become competitive. Still, there are angry voices on all sides of these issues because change is difficult. Congress has not acted, leaving it to the administration to act through the Environmental Protection Agency with a Clean Power Plan. This plan acts directly to regulate CO2 emissions at their source. Direct regulatory approaches are not always politically popular.
An increasing number of voices from across the political spectrum have urged that we apply a market-based approach to tackle climate change. Among these voices is that of former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz who has concluded that the most effective solution would be a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Economic analyses have shown that a revenue-neutral carbon-fee-and-dividend plan could provide market incentives for even more rapid shifts away from fossil fuels toward sustainable sources of energy.
The basic idea is that producers of carbon pollution (power plants, fossil fuel companies) are charged a fee based on their contribution to carbon emissions. The fee would provide a financial incentive for them to reduce these emissions and improve efficiency. The proceeds from the fee would be returned as dividends directly to all households (not used by the government). Dividends could be used as people decide. They provide an offset to any potential increases in the costs associated with carbon pollution. Looking ahead at the rising cost of carbon, power suppliers, businesses and consumers would change to more efficient and cleaner energy sources, which would quickly become cheaper than carbon fuel. Thus the revenue-neutral carbon fee unleashes the power of the market.
But what about China and other countries that we trade with? One key feature of a successful plan would be a “border adjustment” system that charges tariffs on the import of products and energy from countries that do not adopt similar pollution reduction strategies. They, too, would then have an incentive to make changes to their approach so that they can avoid the tariffs. With the border adjustments our domestic producers would not be disadvantaged. To be competitive in our market, foreign companies would need to clean up their act, too.
Pope Francis has stated:
“It is urgent to develop policy so that in the coming years, we drastically reduce carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gas emissions, by, for example, replacing fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources.”
He also provides us with a message of hope:
“Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”
It is time that we heed the voices of moral authority and act to solve our current environmental problems. Our actions now will benefit ourselves, and perhaps even more important, the generations to come. One practical solution to the climate-disruption caused by carbon pollution is the market-based approach outlined above.
Richard Bradley, a resident of Delaware, is an associate professor emeritus in EEO biology at Ohio State University.