States Now Skirting Feds on Climate Change

Climate change activists have ample reason to despair in 2018, as President Trump has mocked and denied the phenomenon that an overwhelming majority of climate scientists have concluded is a real and urgent threat to civilization. More than 700 people have left the federal Environmental Protection Agency since the president took office, The New York Times reported last month, and most are not being replaced. 

Under Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A.’s administrator, the agency began to dismantle its climate change website last spring and announced a repeal of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Also last spring, the president announced that the United States would withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change.

At the same time, however, there is a growing movement for states to bypass the federal government and enact policies consistent with the Paris Accord, under which nations pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of limiting an increase in the global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington made a renewed push for his state to implement a tax on fossil-fuel emissions, asking legislators to approve a $20-per-ton tax on carbon emissions. The revenue would be allocated toward renewable energy initiatives and climate resilience efforts. 

Previous efforts to implement a carbon tax in the state were doomed by opposition from conservatives as well as disagreement among its proponents as to how to allocate the money. 

California’s Air Resources Board designed a cap-and-trade program that the state implemented in 2012, which established a limit on greenhouse gas emissions. Polluters subject to the cap are able to trade allowances to emit greenhouse gases, with the cost paid for those allowances set at quarterly auctions. The effort is aimed at reducing emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and an 80-percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050.

That approach failed in Washington in 2014, according to The Seattle Times, and Governor Inslee is now promoting a tax such as that implemented in British Columbia in 2008. 

In New York, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has set ambitious goals to dramatically reduce emissions by transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, a bill before the State Legislature would levy a carbon tax and issue 60 percent of its revenue as a rebate to moderate and low-income residents, with the remainder allocated to support a transition to 100-percent clean energy and mass transit, and to improve climate change adaptation. These efforts would include payments and subsidies for renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency measures, infrastructure and mass transit capacity improvements, agricultural adaptation measures, protection of low-lying areas including coastlines, and emergency responses to extreme weather. 

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. is a co-sponsor of the bill. “I see the carbon tax as a viable option to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and make the transition to clean energy,” he said last week. He called the bill’s provisions to mitigate a carbon tax’s impact on low and moderate-income families through a tax credit a strength, but added that there has not been much activity on it in the Legislature to date. There is a sponsor in the Senate, he said, but little support in that chamber. 

In a subsequent email last week, Mr. Thiele said that he had spoken with its sponsor in the Assembly, Kevin Cahill. “This is definitely a priority for him,” he said. “I think this issue will get an airing in 2018 because there will be a lot of focus on climate change in Albany.” 

Local chapters of Citizens Climate Lobby, a national, nonpartisan organization that advocates the phased-in imposition of a fee on fossil fuels that would be collected by the Treasury Department, placed into a trust fund, and rebated in full to households, are pushing for state-level action, said John Andrews, co-leader of the Long Island East chapter. Last summer, “we endorsed a statewide statement of support for climate action,” he said, “and we are planning further activities this year.”

Citizens Climate Lobby continues to advocate a national carbon fee and dividend plan, Mr. Andrews said, “but each state is likely to approach this differently, and I am confident that C.C.L. will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” 

“It is believed that state-level carbon fees can have the dual benefit of reducing carbon released into the atmosphere and helping to push the balance toward national enactment,” said Joshua Lipsman, a physician, attorney, and member of the climate lobby’s Brooklyn chapter and statewide planning group. “At smaller levels of government such as county, town, and village, green efforts are very important, but a carbon fee is impossible due to carbon product production being out of local jurisdiction.”

Dr. Lipsman said that the carbon tax bill in the Legislature is unlikely to garner enough support to become law “until the partisan composition of the New York State Senate changes.” C.C.L representatives have visited the offices of 24 of the Senate’s 32 Republicans, he said, and staffers “have indicated it would be difficult to support the Democratic bill for a variety of reasons, one of which is the use of the revenues.” 

Money raised from a carbon fee can be used in a revenue-neutral or non-revenue-neutral fashion, Dr. Lipsman said. “These terms refer to whether the funds raised are kept by the government for its purposes or returned to the public,” less reasonable administrative costs. If kept by government, they are subject to being used for a variety of purposes, “from laudable ones such as sustainability and social justice programs to purposes completely unrelated to climate change such as balancing a needy state budget.” The latter course contributed to the infighting that damaged previous efforts in Washington State, while conservatives tend to oppose legislation they believe will expand government. 

Citizens Climate Lobby, he said, could support either a revenue-neutral or a non-revenue-neutral bill. “We feel that the imperative to do something about climate change . . . must eclipse divisions over how carbon-fee revenue is spent.” 

“As I believe without carbon taxes there is no hope to sufficiently curtail emissions to make a difference, I am for almost any version of it,” said Don Matheson, a member of C.C.L.’s Long Island East chapter. “I very much hope that Governor Inslee’s effort, sight unseen, because of his vocal support, will do better than the previous effort.”