At the November climate talks in Bonn, Germany, an initiative called “America’s Pledge” put forth a commitment by U.S. states, cities, companies, and colleges to achieve the carbon cuts agreed to by the U.S. in Paris in 2015, despite Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement. But if the U.S. doesn’t pursue federal-level policies to reign in carbon emissions, can global efforts succeed, in light of the world’s highly interdependent economies? In this installment of WEMU’s The Green Room, Barbara Lucas explores this dilemma, with a focus on the US and Canada.
David Fair (DF): While the U.S. and Canada share a border, they’re miles apart on climate. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised that, within a year, a national price on carbon will be implemented. Meanwhile, in the U.S. there’s not even a consensus that a problem exists. In this month’s edition of “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores the policy and attitude chasm separating the neighboring countries.
Bill McKibben: So all I’m trying to tell you is, the planet is way outside its comfort zone.
Barbara Lucas (BL): That’s Bill McKibben, speaking at the University of Michigan. He founded 350.org a decade ago. Their goal is to build a global climate action movement.
McKibben: …so you need to be outside your comfort zone some too. OK? This is the challenge of our time.
BL: It’s been three decades since McKibben began writing books calling for action on the climate crisis. He says every era has a challenge.
McKibben: The challenge for our parents and grandparents time was they had to go off to Europe to fight Fascism. A huge number of them got killed. We don’t have to make that kind of sacrifice, but we have to up our game considerably because we are losing the planet on our watch.
BL: After an inspiring talk, audience members ask what they can do.
Student: Of course moving to renewable energy and preventing new pipelines and whatnot are hugely important, but obviously consumption is also playing a huge role in this. We have plastic water bottles and our clothes are made of polyester and all these issues. How can we collectively address the issue of consumption?
BL: McKibben tells her environmentalists like himself have focused a lot on consumer choices, like lightbulbs, electric cars, local food.
McKibben: These are all sweet things that I like and endorse and people should do.
BL: But he says he’s learned that’s not the way we’re going to deal with climate change.
McKibben: We are so far behind the eight ball, we’re so far behind that mathematically, the only way we can deal with this is to have people come together in sufficient numbers to force changes in policy that has big broad rapid sweeping effects on society.
BL: But McKibben isn’t specific about what these changes should look like. Meanwhile, in Canada, things have gotten very specific, with the new Pan Canadian Framework on Climate Change poised to implement sweeping policies. Here’s Dr. Erick Lachapelle, of the University of Montreal, at U of M’s Ford School of Public Policy.
Erick Lachapelle: The one thing that has captured the attention of most people in Canada, and I’d say internationally as well, is this commitment to a national carbon price.
BL: Supporters say a rising price on fossil fuel will jumpstart the transition to cleaner forms of energy. They’ll be used not just in our homes, but our farms and factories. And that will shrink the footprints of products throughout the economy, from food to fabrics.
Lachapelle: Canada wants a common price across the country by 2018.
BL: He says the framework requires provinces to collect a fee on fossil fuels, at the source—the coal mine or oil well. Or they must put a cap on fossil fuel emissions. Or a combination of both.
Lachapelle: That’s why I say it’s flexible: we want a price, we don’t care how you do it.
BL: He says the fee rises gradually every year until 2022. So the economy has time to adjust. And, crucial for buy-in, it’s not a tax, by the standard definition: LaChapelle says the central government doesn’t pocket the money. The fees collected from fossil fuel providers go back—to either the provincial governments or directly to the citizens.
Lachapelle: Every dollar collected as part of carbon pricing in the jurisdictions will go back to, will remain in the jurisdiction in which it was collected.
BL: The idea is: All things being equal, people are naturally inclined to go for the lower price. Because the lower price will have a lower footprint, our millions of individual decisions will add up. And our collective footprint will shrink. British Columbia has had such a system in place for nearly a decade—emissions decreased while their economy improved. So why isn’t the U.S. legislature working on a similar solution?
Sounds of auditorium filling in.
BL: Before his talk at U of M’s Law School, I spoke with Dr. Michael Mann. He’s director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. For decades, he’s been sounding the alarm about the connection between global temperature rise and industrialization, with its exponential increase in burning of fossil fuels. But it hasn’t exactly advanced the situation, as he had hoped.
Michael Mann: We have a refusal by the party in power to even accept the fact that climate change is real and a problem, and we have to get past that.
BL: Dr. Mann does support the call for a price on carbon. But for his part, he’s focused on just trying to convince Americans of the need for climate action, in general.
Mann: What sort of appears to be denial of the science is actually just a proxy for an underlying ideological opposition to regulation. Or a product of the fact that we have this poisoned discourse over climate change.
BL: He says the situation is no accident.
Mann: Fossil fuel interest groups have intentionally created this sort of mythology that somehow acting to preserve our environment is a matter of taking away personal freedom. It's not true. If anything, the impacts of climate change are what are going to infringe on personal freedoms.
BL: Dr. Mann would love to move past debating science to solutions. When asked about his thoughts on how best to craft a carbon pricing policy, he’s not specific.
Dr. Michael Mann: There is a legitimate debate to be had about how we go about solving this problem. What there isn't, is a legitimate reason to call into question that we have a problem.
Sounds of auditorium filling in, UM’s Bell Tower rings in background.
BL: Bill McKibben, in our interview before his presentation, says he proposed carbon pricing decades ago.
McKibben: So I think that there's never been a good intellectual argument against pricing carbon. I’ve spent thirty years now saying there’s no reason that this should be the only thing for which there’s not a price, that you’re allowed to produce for free. And that's why we produce so much of it. It's as if you were allowed to take the trash from your restaurant at the end of the night just toss it in the middle of the street. But we don't do that in a civilized world except for the fossil fuel industry.
BL: He calls the need to price carbon “inarguable.”
McKibben: Pretty much every economist—left, right and center—has said so for a long time. That part of it’s easy.
BL: But McKibben says at this point, the mess we’re in calls for more than a market-driven solution. He’s pushing for fossil fuel divestment and pipeline shutdowns.
McKibben: And we need people going to jail and we need people on campuses pushing and, you know, on and on and on.
BL: So would it be correct to say that you don't believe markets can do it all?
McKibben: I think the thing that most needs to change is the zeitgeist here. I think that’s always the prize for activists.
BL: He says our idea of what’s normal, what makes sense, must change.
McKibben: When that happens the policy parts get a little easier.
BL: From the enthusiastic applause, it seems this audience is on board with McKibbon.
McKibben: …shoulder to shoulder, moving forward.
BL: But in mainstream America, obviously, not so much. So how might this situation affect Canada? Back at the Ford School, here’s Dr. LaChapelle.
Lachapelle: To what extent can Canada have a policy that is independent of the United States? And why is this such an issue? It is because of the trade relationship. A very important… two highly interwoven interdependent economies.
BL: Lachapelle says unless the U.S. enacts it’s own carbon pricing plan, Canadian exports could be at a disadvantage.
Lachapelle: Fifty-five percent of Canadians think Canada should hold off.
BL: The fear, he says, is to be too far out of step with the United States.
Lachapelle: So this is challenge number one for Trudeau.
BL: Signs of forward moment are growing. For instance, a recent national survey shows that a majority of Republican voters support regulating CO2 as a pollutant. And locally, the Ann Arbor city council voted unanimously to endorse federal carbon fee and dividend legislation. But will a groundswell across America urge their lawmakers to push forward such policies? The world—including the Canadians—will be watching.
In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
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