Pricing Pollution, Cutting Carbon

“We the undersigned call upon the United States Senate, House of Representatives, and President Obama to work together to introduce, promote, and pass legislation that puts a price on carbon pollution and returns revenues to the American people, either directly or by reducing taxes.”


There are many things which need to be done if we are to break the hold of the oil, gas and coal industries over government so that we can make a rapid transition to a jobs-creating, just and much-less-polluting renewable energy-based economy. We need:

-local and state-based campaigns fighting specific dirty energy projects: tar sands, fracking and the pipelines, compressors and export terminals the oil and gas industry needs to keep it going, offshore oil/gas drilling in new areas like the Atlantic coast, drilling for oil in the Arctic and mountaintop removal;

-mass demonstrations in the streets, with next Sunday’s huge People’s Climate March in NYC a particular priority right now;

-an escalated campaign of nonviolent direct action. Two of the major actions coming up are the Flood Wall Street action the day after the People’s Climate March and a week of day-after-day actions in DC November 1-7 organized by Beyond Extreme Energy. The urgency of the climate crisis, combined with the Obama Administration’s continued following of an “all of the above” energy plan, as distinct from “renewables first,” makes this a strategic necessity.

-work to pass pro-renewables and efficiency legislation at local, state and federal levels and to fight the efforts by the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry to roll back and weaken already-passed laws, such as mandates that states get a certain percentage of their energy from renewables;

-efforts internationally to bring massive grassroots pressure to expose and put on the defensive the international slackers on climate action–the United States, Canada and Australia being three of the biggest. This is to increase the chances, limited as they appear right now, that a binding and just treaty might be agreed upon at the end of next year at the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference. (Though it is a good thing that the EPA is moving to regulate existing power plants, there are lots of problems with how they’re projecting that it happen, including the explicit support of shifting from coal to methane-leaking natural gas, mainly fracked gas.)

And then there is what might be the most important objective of all: putting a price on carbon in a way that actually increases the incomes of low-income and middle-class families. This is not about to happen soon, given the reality of our big money-dominated political system that so frustrates efforts to enact for-the-people legislation. But there are some developments which could make this happen sooner rather than later.

A very big one is the introduction of a bill, and the positive response to it, by Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and nine other co-sponsors of the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act of 2014 on July 30th. This legislation, HR 5271, puts forward a “cap-and-dividend” approach to making fossil fuel polluters pay for bringing carbon fuels into the economy by buying permits to do so at a government-organized auction. A steadily declining cap will reduce the number of permits available year by year, increasing their price. All of the money raised by this auction will be returned to every US resident with a Social Security number, each person getting the same amount. Studies have shown that fully ¾ of all American families will benefit or break even economically with this plan, even with the certain rise in fossil fuel prices that comes with it.

33 groups so far have signed a statement in support of this bill, and an organizing campaign to build support is underway. The Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post have editorialized in support of it, and the New York Times ran an op ed by James Boyce on the day the bill was introduced. More information can be found at

There is also “fee-and-dividend” legislation introduced in May of this year by Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Wa.), HR 4754, the Managed Carbon Price Act of 2014. There are many similarities to the Van Hollen bill, but one difference is that this bill requires fossil fuel companies to pay a steadily increasing fee, not buy permits via an auction of a steadily decreasing number of permits.

For the last several years, since the failure of “cap-and-trade” legislation in the US Senate, a loose network of about 35 or more groups has been having occasional discussions about other options: a carbon tax, fee-and-dividend or cap-and-dividend. Earlier this year, some of the more activist groups in that network came together to develop plans to “go public” on this issue of the need to price carbon. They have just released the petition at the top of this column, and they are building towards what are expected will be dozens of local actions around the country over the weekend of November 14-16. As explained on their website:

“The Pricing Carbon Initiative (PCI) is encouraging communities around the country to organize a range of grassroots, locally-inspired events that convey the urgent need to address climate disruption with a price on carbon emissions this November 14th, 15th, and 16th. Over the course of one weekend, these November events will serve as a launching point for the beginning of a national dialogue and movement to price carbon pollution in the United States. By coming together at this crucial time, we can add to the growing momentum for climate action in our country and point the way towards solutions.”

There is lots to do in our strengthening climate movement! In the words of Christopher Fry in “A Sleep of Prisoners:”

“Thank God our time is now
When wrong comes up
To face us everywhere,
Never to leave until we take
The longest stride of soul (we humans) ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.”