On Sept. 5, CNN hosted a marathon seven-hour town hall on climate change featuring the major Democratic candidates for president. Much was discussed (indeed, one wonders if there’s ever been a more comprehensive policy conversation featuring presidential candidates presented on live TV), but for many Americans the takeaway was this: Democrats want to deny them cheeseburgers. There’s a grain (or perhaps pickle slice) of truth in that, but only a little one. Given broad agreement over the threat posed by historic levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, the conversation among the Democrats naturally shifted to less-explored topics like beef production. As one might imagine, this got much attention by Trump supporters only too happy to scare the public into believing the burger police are just around the corner.
⚡️ 7 hours, 10 town halls.
Democratic presidential candidates discuss their plans for tackling the climate crisis. #ClimateTownHall
This is the kind of nonsense that must drive climate scientists mad. On the one hand, there’s a president who has not only called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China, he has set himself to the suicidal task of dismantling rational climate policies like reduced power plant emissions. On the other are candidates who are talking about burgers and light bulbs, both of which are authentic issues but which should also be subordinate to the more pressing concern of accepting reality. The planet is in serious danger. Can we get consensus on that, please? Because somehow President Donald Trump appears to have enjoyed some success in convincing a whole lot of Americans that sea-level rise, harsher weather, droughts and floods and record levels of carbon in the atmosphere are all a figment of liberal imaginations.
Don’t get us wrong. We recognize that raising cattle for meat is extraordinarily carbon-intensive and that the way we produce food in general needs to change. Agriculture (and the removal of forests that goes along with it) is not trivial in the climate change picture. Moreover, eating less meat of course has a host of other benefits for our health and the environment. But let’s not lead with our chins here. There’s an enormous amount of good we can do to protect the climate in ways that will have a smaller impact on our daily lives, but focusing on what people will perceive as the biggest sacrifices tends to shut down the conversation.
Just by reversing President Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, the next president can do wonders toward putting the United States and the world on a more sustainable path. Changing our energy policy would lead to cleaner air and water, which is one of the great fringe benefits of steering away from the burning of fossil fuels. Even the somewhat dry topics of conservation and renewable energy policies sound more compelling when people are reminded they can lower their monthly bills and create new jobs for the economy.
That brings us to one of the most central strategies advocated by those fighting climate change — a carbon tax. There are various forms of this strategy floating around from cap-and-trade programs to federal excise taxes on various fuels. One of the most compelling is a revenue-neutral approach that would tax problem fuels like coal heavily but offset them with household tax credits. The point is to use the free market economy to change behavior. People would naturally gravitate toward fuel-sipping vehicles and solar panels on the roof if it meant a net financial gain. It might be the single biggest step the United States could take to protect the climate.
The problem with this is that voters traditionally don’t respond well to candor about taxes. They prefer their candidates to spout the fiction that government can do more with less or some variation of that. Politicians who stray from that philosophy fear they are doomed to what befell former Vice President Walter Mondale when he promised higher taxes in 1984 — a crushing defeat at the polls.
Should Democrats promise an “eat your spinach” carbon tax? Certainly, they shouldn’t oppose it. Would discussing it now signal candor, as Mr. Mondale had intended 35 years ago, or prove a political landmine as history demonstrated, particularly as fears of an economic recession grow? Here’s the wisest course: Focus on the basics. Most Americans recognize that climate change is a major threat (from 40 percent in 2013 to 57 percent now, according to the Pew Research Center and a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll produced similar results). Committing the nation to international accords like the Paris Agreement aimed at reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions and stopping our non-sustainable energy policies need to be kept at the front and center of public discourse. Cheeseburgers can wait for another day.