Helping Marylanders by addressing climate change

Op-ed: A carbon fee and dividend could slow climate change and help Maryland families get by.

Even as this year's general election heats up, it's the climate that's really getting hot. July was the hottest month ever recorded, and the 10th straight month to break record temperatures, according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. And 2016 is well on its way to surpassing 2015 as the hottest year ever recorded.

While we can't predict the outcome of November's election, we can easily predict the consequences of climate inaction.

Maryland will be hit especially hard, as the Chesapeake region's receding coastline makes it more vulnerable to flooding. While the U.S. has experienced about 6 inches of sea level rise over the past 100 years, Maryland has experienced a foot. This rate will increase in the absence of significant intervention, with an additional two-foot rise likely by 2050. Such a rise in sea level will make extreme floods like the recent tragedy in Ellicott City more likely.

Thankfully, there are common sense policies we can implement now to prevent the worst impacts of climate change — without negatively affecting the economy.

One promising idea is a revenue-neutral tool known as a carbon fee and dividend. A carbon fee and dividend puts a price on carbon at its point of entry into our economy — whether it's the mine where coal is dug, the well where gas is drilled or the port where oil is imported. That revenue is collected and returned back to ordinary Americans in the form of a monthly dividend check.

That monthly dividend would allow policymakers to set a price high enough to achieve necessary emissions reductions while protecting everyday residents from the rising costs of fossil fuels, which can cause gas prices or utility bills to creep up.

The fee and dividend should be paired with border tariffs on goods from countries lacking an equivalent price on carbon. This so-called "border adjustment" would protect American businesses and provide a strong economic incentive for other nations to price carbon.

The majority of economists agree that putting a price on carbon is the best option to slow climate change. There are several carbon pricing mechanisms out there. You may have heard of cap and trade, for example, in which companies buy and trade a limited number of credits for the right to pollute. Yet a carbon fee and dividend is the simplest and most transparent option.

A steadily rising fee creates predictability in the market, enabling businesses and consumers to plan their energy investments well into the future. And the policy's straightforwardness prevents many of the problems that cap and trade has faced around the world, from caps so high that they're ineffective to carbon trading fraud.

Carbon fee and dividend is also more equitable, because the monthly dividend ensures that the costs of addressing climate change don't add to the economic inequality and hardship already plaguing our country.

In fact, a recent study found that young people, the elderly, people of color and those with lower incomes would generally benefit from carbon fee and dividend, while the people who would end up paying a bit more are those most able to afford it.

In Maryland, researchers found, 71 percent of all households would experience a net gain or a minor loss (defined as 0.2 percent of income) under carbon fee and dividend. Among households living in poverty, fully 89 percent would see a bigger dividend than the estimated increase in the cost of goods. Through a robust public education campaign, even more households could benefit financially from the policy by learning how to reduce their carbon footprints.

Though carbon pricing has support from a broad swath of economists and environmentalists, political polarization threatens to prevent its implementation. Again, carbon fee and dividend offers the best path forward.

Carbon fee and dividend can appeal to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Democrats generally like that it reduces emissions while creating jobs and saving lives. Republicans appreciate that it is market-based and revenue-neutral, meaning that it doesn't grow government.

Members of both parties are slowly coming around to taking action on climate change. Fourteen Republicans have signed on to sponsor the Gibson Resolution, which acknowledges the dangers posed by climate change and calls on Congress to take action. And the newly formed the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus within the U.S. House of Representatives has 16 members so far: eight Democrats and eight Republicans working together to address climate change. Maryland Democrat Rep. John Delaney is among them.

If our Congress chooses to lead on climate issues, it can enact a carbon fee and dividend to cut emissions without jolting the economy or hurting everyday Americans. This policy is a common sense first step in addressing a growing crisis that has been pushed aside for far too long.

Taylor Smith-Hams is a New Economy Maryland fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her email is tsmithhams@gmail.com.

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