It is not only during extreme heat that we should be reminded of what is in store as the climate continues to change. As Australia saw temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, as kangaroos collapsed and 100,000 bats fell from the sky due to extreme heat—many dying on impact and the rest perishing slowly—we in Tennessee rushed to insulate pipes and set up emergency shelters. As our heating systems worked overtime, we came dangerously close to a TVA blackout.
Using a single event as a catalyst is risky; we are talking about long-term trends, not next Saturday’s game-day forecast. That doesn’t change the fact that whatever weather events we experience are occurring in the context of a climate that is changing as a result of man’s activities. The global scientific community, in an overwhelming majority, has given its verdict. The time to discuss climate solutions in Tennessee is now.
The scope of the problem, which can seem overwhelming, has nevertheless been met with a great variety of proposed political solutions. The Kyoto Protocol, in recognition of the disproportionate greenhouse gas contribution of developed countries, set legal reduction requirements for multiple target dates and has been signed by 191 states. As we continue to blow past records for atmospheric carbon concentrations, ocean acidification, species extinction and temperature extremes, it is hard to see the attempt as anything but a failure. The 400 parts per million mark (of CO2), a level not seen in millions of years, was recorded in May of 2013. There have been numerous climate summits, the results of which invariably produce a copious supply of political standstill.
There are many reasons that these efforts fail, but I would like to focus on one. The U.S. refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and can be relied upon to perform with equal vigor at climate summits. It is difficult to imagine a surge in global commitment when a country that represents just 4.5 percent of the world’s population and around 19 percent of worldwide carbon emissions votes to use the atmosphere as a garbage can. A common Tennessee response to U.S. inaction might sound like “India and China aren’t acting” or “Al Gore made a movie.” It is strange that China and India are so often cited, while climate change leaders such as Germany rarely get the spotlight. It is even stranger that a suggested response to their inaction, as if we weren’t all on the same sinking ship, is to beat them in the race to the bottom. U.S. policy seems to largely stem from the political football that we have allowed the issue to become, where a vocal minority contradicts global scientific and political consensus, and flat-out ignores the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Rather than allowing misinformation to thwart efforts on one of the most critical issues of our day, I propose that we encourage senators Alexander and Corker to look to bipartisan solutions that place Tennessee and the U.S. squarely in a position of leadership.
One solution that would do just that, as well as create millions of jobs over the next decade in a wide variety of fields, is a carbon tax in the form of Fee and Dividend. As proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby, the forward-looking bipartisan solution would start at $15 per ton of CO2, and increase gradually each year in an amount determined by Congress. To get an idea of the end effect, a cost of $15 per ton of CO2 would raise gas prices by 10-15 cents per gallon. The dividend is returned through the IRS to the people, and partially compensates for the increased cost of energy. It is a win-win-win-win proposal. The externalized costs of polluting energy are accounted for, which promotes clean energy and the smart grid. The dominance of the personal automobile would be challenged by the practicality of mass transit. Bicycles become an attractive mode of transportation, which would promote city development that focuses on human power instead of decayed dinosaurs. This would in turn accomplish more than any insurance plan to improve quality of life and curb the exploding cost of health care.
And lastly, the U.S. gets to join the global climate conversation.