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Marty Nathan: It ought to be a law, and can: carbon fee and rebate

Marty Nathan, a member of  Climate Action Now,  is a regular contributor to the Gazette opinion pages. Here is her most recent column:

By MARTY NATHAN in the Hampshire Daily Gazette  Thursday, April 23, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Most of the climate news from the oceans and the Arctic and California has been grim, with changes occurring around the world even faster than climate scientists had predicted.

But this month, as my mixed-religious family prepared to celebrate Passover and Easter, the two holidays of hope, there was a glimmer of optimism that we might be able to transform our society into a sustainable one. The first was President Obama’s vow, made in the lead-up to the coming Paris conference on climate change, that the United States would cut carbon emissions by 28 percent over the next decade. This was not new news: It had first been uttered following negotiations with China last year. The fact that the Administration has stuck with it, though, shows a spine that has way-too-often been lacking in Washington. And 28 percent is not enough, but it is a portal to deeper cuts, to the 80 percent needed by 2050 to prevent the worst-case climate scenario — global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius with its companion sea level rise, droughts (of which California’s is only a preview) and tipping points to exponentially increasing carbon release.

The second event to be celebrated was the completion of the Iran nuclear agreement, limiting the chance of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and decreasing world tensions. What has that to do with the environment or climate change? A lot. Nuclear energy, weapons and waste are a huge threat regionally, but this agreement encourages a negotiated settlement in the Middle East and throughout the world. And absolutely nothing is more damaging to the environment (let alone humans) than war.

Hope means little in the long run if it does not inspire further commitment to the hard work awaiting us. We must build the institutional structures that will cut carbon emissions quickly. One of the most important climate tasks we in Massachusetts can tackle to propel us to and beyond that 28 percent emissions reduction will be to create a carbon fee and rebate system in the state. What is it and why do we need it?

A carbon fee and rebate system puts a price on oil, natural gas and coal coming into our state. That price is based on the pollution cost of burning it and is paid by the limited number of distributors that send the fuel to the places where it is resold or burned. That added fee is then passed on to consumers at the pump, the electric and gas meter, our oil company bill and products made using this energy.

Why do it? Because increased cost decreases use. To stop climate change (and health-destructive air pollution) we must burn less fossil fuel. People find alternatives — they turn the thermostat down in winter and up in summer. They walk or take the bus, invest in solar if they can, hang out the wash and insulate the house, even when there are not programs to support such energy-conserving choices, much more so when those choices are offered, promoted and subsidized.

It works. It has been adopted in scores of countries around the world and, in one of the best-studied examples, Canada’s British Columbia province, its adoption was associated with a 16 percent drop in emissions over seven years when Canada’s overall emissions rose by 3 percent.

But isn’t it an economy-destroying tax? Well, you can call it a tax if you want but it is more like a user’s fee. At present, big polluters are using our atmosphere as a free dump for a toxic product, in a manner that is destroying our future. Perhaps they should pay for that, which is jeopardizing our health and ecosystem. It is our collective responsibility to stop the abuse of something that belongs to all of us.

Doesn’t it hit those most financially at risk: poor homeowners, renters and low-wage workers having to pay more to travel to their jobs, those for whom transportation, heat and electricity costs are a greater proportion of their budgets?

No. In fact, low- and middle-income people come out ahead in the plan adopted in British Columbia and proposed for Massachusetts. That is because there is an upfront rebate, an equal amount to each adult that, unless you make more than $70,000 a year, more than compensates for the loss in fees. Those who burn the least fuel make out best.

What about the “economy-destroying” business? In the years since the institution of the fee and rebate, British Columbia’s economy has grown faster than that of the rest of Canada. In part that is because a fraction of the fee has been used to offer those sustainable choices — building mass transit, expanding solar, hydro and wind energy and conservation.

Two bills are before the Massachusetts Legislature to establish a carbon fee and rebate system, filed by Sens. Marc R. Pacheco and Michael J. Barrett. Forty-three lawmakers have signed on, including state Reps. Peter Kocot and Ellen Story. That gives us more hope. Let’s build on it.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Climate Action NOW. She lives in Northampton.