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Reynolds: To solve climate change, passengers must fly the plane

021717Reynolds

Mark Reynolds

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Friday, February 17, 2017

When it comes to climate change, most Americans are like the passengers on a jetliner wanting to arrive safely at their destination but thinking there’s no need to be involved with the actual flying of the plane. The “people in charge,” surely, have things under control.

Lately, however, the plane has experienced a rough ride:

Christmas Day, the temperature at  the North Pole approached the melting point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, about 40 degrees above average for that time of year.

With 2016 hitting another high mark for average global temperature, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred in the current century.

Floods, like the disasters that struck Louisiana and North Carolina last year, are happening as a result of unprecedented rainfall measured in feet rather than inches.

As we start the new year, 37 million people across Africa are without food because of crop failures caused by droughts and floods exacerbated by climate change.

All this turbulence is prompting some of the passengers to rise from their seats, walk to the cockpit and check with the pilot. Upon opening the door, however, they are shocked to see no one seated at the controls.

For a number of years, President Obama did his best to keep the plane aloft with executive orders to address climate change, chiefly the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at power plants. But the 44th president has donned his parachute and exited the plane, leaving the pilot’s seat disturbingly empty.

So, how do we avoid crashing into a mountainside?

It’s time for the passengers to start flying the plane, and by passengers, we mean citizens. This entails setting aside cynicism about our government and engaging with people in Congress who represent us in Washington. Government will respond to the will of the people, provided the people tell the government what we want.

Engaging with our government also requires us to seek common ground between Republicans and Democrats. We can find that common ground by listening as much as we talk. And if we listen, we find that the greatest concern about acting on climate change — whether through regulation or carbon pricing — is the impact it will have on our economy, the fear that jobs will be lost.

We can alleviate those fears and find that common ground with a market-based solution that holds polluters accountable for the damage caused to our air, water and climate. Such a market-based solution needs to be revenue neutral, thereby preventing it from increasing the size of government. A steadily-rising fee on carbon, with all revenue returned to households, would bring down greenhouse gas emissions while boosting the economy.

A study from the highly respected Regional Economic Models Inc. looked at such a policy, whereby a fee on the carbon dioxide content of fuels would increase $10 per ton each year. Border tariffs on imports from nations lacking a similar carbon price were applied to maintain a level playing field for American businesses. Within 20 years, the REMI study found that emissions would drop more than 50 percent. The study also found that the policy would add 2.8 million jobs, due primarily to recycling the carbon fee revenue back to households.

But in our highly polarized political atmosphere, is it really possible for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to work together on climate change?

Hopeful signs emerged in 2016 with the creation of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which has equal membership from both sides of aisle. The caucus creates a safe space for Republicans and Democrats, weary of the bickering and posturing surrounding the climate issue, to have an honest dialogue about ways to reduce the risks we face in a warming world.

In the coming year, as more and more citizens interact with their members of Congress, we can grow the ranks within the Climate Solutions Caucus and reach the critical mass necessary to introduce and pass bipartisan legislation.

None of this can happen, however, unless we take control of the plane and put it back on course. As Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart once said, “We aren't passengers on spaceship Earth, we're the crew. We aren't residents on this planet, we're citizens. The difference in both cases is responsibility.”

Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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