By Kate Leftin, Rose Hendricks and Mark Reynolds
The amount of heat-trapping emissions humans have spewed into our atmosphere since last Earth Day was 10 percent less than a typical year. This reduction came at a tremendous loss of life and livelihood and will be short lived as the global economy rebounds, so this is hardly a celebration-worthy reduction. At the same time, over the past year, and especially since the beginning of 2021, proposals for climate solutions have been receiving more attention. However, in Virginia and nationally, solutions do not yet match the size of the problem.
Nationally, a multi-year drought partially driven by climate change is threatening water supplies and intensifying wildfires in the Southwest and California. In the Southeast, climate impacts have tended to manifest in more intense storm events. The 2020 storm season also saw the rise of another troubling phenomenon associated with climate change — rapid intensification of storms, which we experienced first-hand in Virginia last year. Ten tropical systems brought heavy rain and flooding to our state, and some areas had up to 24 inches of rain. The National Weather Service’s records show a clear increase in precipitation between 2019 and 2020; the highest levels of precipitation statewide in August of 2019 was between 8 to 10 inches. In 2020, the highest levels were between 20 to 25 inches. Since warmer air holds more water, many of these events did not even involve tropical storms. For example, in February of 2020, Southwest Virginians experienced severe flooding.
Of course, the most well-known impact of climate change is hotter weather. Beyond the obvious threat to human health, heat waves reduce crop yields. The trend line of temperatures threatens agriculture and forestry, the largest economic sector of rural Virginia, over the course of this century, as our climate slowly transitions to the current climate of Alabama.
There are many legislative measures that would cut carbon emissions or improve climate resilience. The Virginia General Assembly has moved to promote electric vehicles and offshore wind power and the federal government seems to be following up with national efforts. There are efforts to update electrical grids to make them more compatible with renewables as well as the state’s entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to cap emissions from power plants.
These efforts, however, also need a price on carbon to motivate corporations and individuals to transition from fossil fuels to renewables. The key is to set a price high enough to move investments and behavior toward a clean energy economy, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. A recent study by Columbia University economists estimated the level and timing of a carbon price to meet that goal. The price would need to reach between $34 and $64 per metric ton of CO2 by 2025 and between $77 and $124 by 2030. By returning revenue to households, thereby protecting Americans from the economic impact of higher energy costs, we can establish a price that gets the job done in a politically durable way.
Several Congressional bills that employ the fee-and-dividend approach to carbon pricing fall within the range needed to achieve the needed emissions reductions:
The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act in the House sponsored by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL-22)
The America’s Clean Future Fund Act in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)
The American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), expected to be introduced soon
By cosponsoring these bills, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Virginia’s members of the House of Representatives can help to ensure that Congress implements this critical tool this year. So far, Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA-11) is the only member of the Virginia delegation to cosponsor one.
Half a century ago, the first Earth Day kicked off a movement that led to cleaner air and water for all Americans, marked by both political will and Congressional action. This year’s Earth Day (April 22) comes at a time when more and more Americans have personally felt the impacts of climate change, and are responding with willingness to support legislative solutions. We have the momentum, so it’s time for Congress to act.
An ambitious price on carbon is a big step in the right direction.
Kate Leftin is a volunteer with the Fairfax County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Rose Hendricks is a volunteer and co-leader of the Fairfax County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.