A rare coalition of environmental and industry groups as well as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have launched a market-oriented plan for a carbon tax — reigniting the national debate on climate change policy.
While all innovative options should be on the table, America needs a consensus on how the nation should address climate change. For more than two decades, people across the political spectrum have toiled to educate the public on climate risks to economic and national security, while proposing various solutions.
But such efforts have failed time and again to develop a national approach. “Why is this the case?” Few seem interested in answering that question. Without addressing it, however, we are almost guaranteed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Developing a national climate policy is complicated. Republicans refuse to recognize the significant human contribution to climate change, and Democrats embrace a shortsighted climate policy that works mostly for their Northeast and West Coast constituencies.
What most fail to acknowledge is that America is the size of a continent with regional disparities and different economic circumstances and energy landscapes. Our poorest state, Mississippi, has a per capita income that is only about half of the richest, Connecticut. Any national compromise must recognize the wealth gap between the states. It should also reflect the fact that richer states generally industrialized earlier and account for the majority of U.S. historical emissions.
Roughly 30 years ago, the European Union faced the same dilemma. They addressed it by constructing a continent-wide climate policy with a simple, rational approach — wealthy countries should reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because they are in a better position to do so, and poorer countries should be allowed to increase their emissions, allowing their economies to catch up with the quality of life in richer areas of the EU. That common policy required countries like Germany and the UK initially to take on the burden of the continent’s emissions reductions.
Importantly, the EU did not send climate science missionaries to rural parts of Greece and Portugal to persuade their citizens to accept deep GHG cuts. Nor did they construct a carbon trading system first. Instead, richer EU countries made compliance easy for the rest and then moved forward with constructing an EU-wide policy designed to start and strengthen over time.
America can learn from Europe’s political strategy. The right way to build a U.S. climate consensus is to give poorer, fossil-dependent or energy-intensive manufacturing states greater flexibility with compliance, possibly allowing emissions growth in those regions. Richer, more progressive states like New York would then commit to ambitious reductions, forming the bedrock of the political deal that can then be used to develop policy solutions.
Making compliance easy for U.S. states with per capita incomes less than the national average could form the backbone of a political compromise that places America on the right track for forging a climate policy that survives erratic political swings and enables the nation to be a reliable partner in global climate mitigation efforts. Moreover, the debate over climate science would likely subside in poorer states as the economic cost of reducing emissions would be largely removed as a political factor.
Such a tactic could also win support in states that voted for President Trump if average U.S. per capita income informed the contours of the deal. In 2014, U.S. per capita income was roughly $29,000. For those 20 states that rank higher than the national per capita average, more ambitious climate action would be expected. Sixteen of those states voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. On the flip side, 27 out of the 30 states that voted for Trump fall below the national average. Using the EU model, those states would face softer targets or even gain the right to increase their emissions in the near term.
Climate activists are likely to balk at such a compromise, but it’s important to note that this approach is consistent with the principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, and traditional U.S. climate diplomacy. After all, President Obama struck a deal with China — much applauded by the environmental community — that allows that country’s emissions to grow between now and 2030, while America pledged to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025.
Environmentalists have long recognized the economic disparities between developed and developed economies in the context of climate action and have argued persuasively the moral obligation for richer countries to do more. They should support the same approach when it comes to forging a U.S. consensus on climate policy. After all, Mississippi’s citizens should have the right to enjoy the same quality of life found in Connecticut.
George David Banks is President Trump’s former adviser on international energy and environment policy and current executive vice president of the American Council for Capital Formation. He received an EPA climate protection award for diplomacy from the Obama Administration in 2009.