Global Warming Mitigation Requires Carbon Fee and Dividend


Global warming seriously threatens the planet, now and especially for the future of our children and grandchildren. Earth is warming because carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere has risen to levels that keep the sun’s heat from being radiated into space, the way a greenhouse keeps plants warm in cold weather. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is produced mostly by our burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas.

Carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, in spite of current limited efforts to control them. To reverse rising CO2, we must substantially decrease the burning of fossil fuels. Economists worldwide agree that raising the price of fossil fuels would reduce their use, through fuel-saving measures — i.e., higher gas-mileage vehicles, improved building insulation, electricity conservation — and more rapid switching to renewable-energy sources.

They recommend a producer-paid fee added to all fossil fuels as they enter the marketplace. Such increased prices would, predictably, be passed on to consumers, thus creating a disincentive to burn fossil fuels and an incentive for using renewables. A properly designed carbon fee and dividend (CF&D) program would substantially decrease atmospheric CO2 within the time frame required for significant protection from global warming.

Such programs have been proposed, federally by the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019 and in Rhode Island by the Economic and Climate Resilience Act of 2019. These proposals aren’t mutually exclusive. State programs may hasten adoption of federal legislation, with business-friendly uniformity.

To lower the economic impact, CF&D returns the increased cost of fossil fuels to consumers, to cover their extra expenses during the transition to decreased fossil-fuel use and more renewable energy.

We must recognize that dangerous and costly effects of global warming are already occurring, worldwide and here in Rhode Island. Polar ice is melting, so sea levels rise. Oceans heat up, and become acidic. Fish disappear. Storms are stronger, more frequent, and hang around longer. Droughts, floods, and wildfires seem always in the news. Coastal properties lose value. Economic collapse is a predictable threat. It will be expensive for us to build barriers against rising seas, to relocate wastewater treatment facilities, to salvage flooded roads, to provide water in drought areas and to remove it from flooded places. If we don’t start addressing these issues before damage occurs, our costs will inevitably increase. Carbon fees can be apportioned to help fund planning and undertaking the necessary adaptive measures to reduce the impact of global warming on our threatened infrastructure.

Economic models demonstrate that enacting CF&D stimulates business and creates jobs. Profitable opportunities would flourish, based upon conversion to renewable-energy sources, energy-conservation efforts, and construction projects to protect us from rapidly approaching environmental effects of global warming.

CF&D, by itself, will not be enough to stop global warming. But climate scientists and economists agree that it is the essential base-measure, everywhere in the world. There will still be value in research and development of techniques for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, as well as efforts to stop clearing forests, and replace those that have been lost to unconstrained development, since forests serve us well by sequestering carbon dioxide.

Powerful, well-funded interest groups, carefully hidden from public view, have hired lobbyists and public-relations experts to block the adoption of CF&D. (See “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer). We must recognize global warming as the biggest threat to humanity currently, albeit one that can be tamed with a collaborative multifocal response.

However, fossil-fuel men — “rich men in their summer homes,” per the Grateful Dead — see it as a simple hurdle for their business plans.

Many national and international studies say we must act now to reverse global warming. Please ask your representatives and senators to support CF&D.

Peter Trafton, M.D., is a Providence resident.