It’s sad what it sometimes takes to get our attention.
For decades now, the scientific community has been analyzing the changing climate and passing along their findings to policymakers and the public. Over the years, our understanding of the problem has grown and, because of our inaction, so has the problem itself.
Awareness and concern around the climate crisis—both in the public square generally and in American Christianity specifically—rose considerably in the middle of the last decade. But so did opposition from special interest groups such as the fossil fuel industry. Their dissuasive tactics were alarmingly effective. By the time a cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate in 2009, climate action had gone from being a moral priority to a partisan controversy, and it soon all but disappeared from our public and political discourse.
Of course, the climate kept changing during that time, and its global impacts kept growing. We in America just stopped talking about it for the most part.
Fast-forward to 2012. Both President Obama and Governor Romney made climate action a priority in the past, but this time it was almost completely absent from their teleprompters and talking points. And no matter how hard groups such as 350.org and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action pushed, it still barely registered during the campaigns. It was just that taboo.
That is, until the week before the election, when Superstorm Sandy tore through the East Coast, devastating New York and New Jersey. Suddenly, climate change was all over the news again, as everyone remembered why we need to take the warming planet seriously. This included New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave President Obama a last-minute endorsement titled, “A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change.”
“Our climate is changing,” Bloomberg wrote in the endorsement. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be—given this week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
As Mayor Bloomberg qualified, it’s very hard to attribute Superstorm Sandy or any other single weather event to global climate change. Climate is about long-term averages; many data points are needed to scientifically confirm a trend.
But we don’t want more data points like Sandy.
There are, however, some things we already know. We know that record-breaking storms like Sandy—and many of the other extreme weather events we’ve experienced in recent years—are very much in line with expert predictions for a warming planet. We know that hurricanes feed off warm water and that ocean temperatures along the East Coast were significantly above average this year.
And we know that, not only have we done little to tackle global warming, we’ve also done little to prepare for its impacts. Sea levels are steadily rising around the world and particularly along the East Coast. The most damaging impact from Sandy was the record-breaking storm surge, which happened on top of already-elevated seas. The higher the seas get, the more vulnerable our cities and communities become.
We need to act. Our nation needs to act. And we need President Obama and Congress to lead. They have a remarkable opportunity to do so before the end of the year.
As the fiscal cliff approaches, both sides are working hard to reach a compromise to reduce our unsustainable budget deficit. Republicans are generally opposed to increasing revenue by increasing income tax rates. Democrats are generally opposed to reducing spending by reducing entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. So, both sides need to find a new source of revenue as part of the solution.
This new revenue source could be a carbon tax.
The carbon tax is a market-based approach to account for the external/social costs of carbon pollution. Though it has “tax” in its name, it’s actually supported and even championed by a number of Republicans as well as Democrats. (Look at that—a policy solution with bipartisan support!) And it could make a big dent in the budget deficit.
It’s unclear, however, if there is enough political momentum in the right places for this to happen as part of a fiscal cliff deal.
Some policy experts believe that a carbon tax would need to be revenue neutral in order to draw enough support to pass. This means it wouldn’t be used to help reduce the deficit and the revenue it brought in wouldbe offset by tax breaks elsewhere. In other words, it wouldn’t be a tax increase; it would be a tax swap. And it wouldn’t take place in the context of debt reform; it would be part of tax reform.
While a revenue neutral carbon tax swap won’t address the fiscal cliff, it remains a viable market-based policy for addressing carbon pollution and global warming.
Former Congressman Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) is probably the most visible conservative leader on climate policy right now. He’s also an outspoken Christian. Bob heads up the Energy and Enterprise Initiative and is working hard to bring his conservative colleagues on board with policies such as the carbon tax swap, which he championed back in the House of Representatives.
I hope and pray that Bob and others like him are successful and that bipartisan momentum continues to grow for putting a price on carbon pollution, whether in the next month or in the next year. Those of us at the grassroots level will continue to do our part advocating for this as well. Because we need to move forward on serious climate action, and putting a cost on carbon pollution would be an historic step in a good direction.
After all, how many devastating wake-up calls do we need before we do the right thing?