As Democrats take over the Houses in both Washington and Minnesota, with Republicans controlling both Senates, what should they do about fixing climate change, for which there is a national clamor, given the resolute opposition of the Republican Party top to bottom to engage with the issue?
Here are two suggestions:
On the federal level, where President Donald Trump’s hostility to positive climate action is breathtaking, there may be a magic bullet. For years, the nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby has proposed a three-part strategy to address the climate crisis: a fee on the carbon pollution content of products; that fee rebated 100 percent to American families; and a border adjustment, aka a tariff, requiring similar carbon fees in other countries. The first two steps will not happen, or even be discussed, in the coal-fired Mitch McConnell-led Senate and the Russian-oil-inspired Trump White House. But the border adjustment just might sell.
First, the ugly background. The industrialized West inadvertently made a very bad deal in the free-trade era, essentially offshoring our pollution to unregulated developing countries. China is desperately trying to undo that catastrophic legacy now, and it will succeed, but the ecological wreckage is epic, just as it was in America after the rapid industrialization of World War II left coal ash and toxins falling like dark rain over America’s cities. We fixed that beginning in the 1960s with increasingly effective and detailed regulations, including slowly cleaning up so-called Superfund sites that remain a legacy of that rapid Wild West industrialization.
Today, Trump “loves” tariffs. The problem is the random nature of his tariff blunderbuss. The better solution is a universal tariff at the U.S. border on products produced without pollution protections commensurate to those within the border. This would have the effect of quietly forcing other countries to clean up their environmental acts, as we did ours, if they want to sell to us. Then, when Trump and McConnell retire and the Senate passes a carbon fee and dividend, adding carbon to that tariff will reduce global carbon pollution without firing a shot.
As the world’s largest market, the U.S. can control the environmental destiny of other countries while protecting our farmers and industries who have invested heavily in pollution control. Who can argue with that?
On the state level, now is the perfect time to increase the gas tax, with the current price per gallon remarkably low. Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed 25-cent tax would take the current price of around $2.10 per gallon to $2.35, still a relative bargain.
The key is what to do with the money. It was notable how well-received has been the demonstration proposal in the federal farm bill to assist farmers toward practices that increase soil health. Why not spread that program around the state like fertilizer with a healthy chunk of that gas-tax money? Farmers well understand that better soils increase yields, retain moisture and lower fossil-fuel inputs. Meanwhile, the climate benefits as more carbon is stored in the soils.
Although no policy no matter how sensible will be easy with divided legislatures in Washington and St. Paul, these two steps fit the agendas of rural and urban constituencies alike. Walz clearly cares about both. No one knows what Trump cares about, but let’s find out.
James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer for the Star Tribune focusing on energy, education and the environment.