Lisa Del Buono

Lisa Del Buono, MD, is co-leader of the Northern Michigan Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby and a member of the CCL Climate and Health Action Team. Courtesy Lisa Del Buono

This month’s theme for APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health is clean energy, underscoring the link between energy use and production and climate change, and its impact on human health. Lisa Del Buono, MD, co-leader of the Northern Michigan Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, makes the case for transitioning to a low carbon economy and charging a fee on carbon as a leading solution.

As health professionals, we know the importance of transitioning to a low carbon economy for the health of the American people. We have witnessed first-hand the immediate health impacts of burning fossil fuels, and we are beginning to see the impacts of a changing climate, especially among the most vulnerable. In an era in which the Clean Power Plan is at risk, how do we continue to move toward our shared goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions?

The solution: It is time to pivot to a market-based approach. In 2015 the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change stated that “the single most powerful strategic instrument to inoculate human health against the risks of climate change would be for governments to introduce strong and sustained carbon pricing, in ways pledged to strengthen over time until the problem is brought under control.” Citizens’ Climate Lobby could not agree more.

Placing a steadily increasing fee on greenhouse gas emissions is both efficient and transparent. A 2014 study performed by Regional Economic Models Inc., or REMI, demonstrated that a fee starting at $10 per ton and increasing by $10 per ton annually could achieve in just three years the same reduction in CO2 emissions that it would take 15 years for the Clean Power Plan to achieve.

Carbon dioxide emissions from power generation

Courtesy REMI

But isn’t this just a carbon tax? Wouldn’t a tax on emissions be regressive to the economically disadvantaged because they spend a higher proportion of their earned income on basic needs like filling their gas tanks and heating their homes?

If all revenues are equitably returned to American households, these negative side effects can be avoided. By returning revenues back to the hands of citizens, a regressive tax becomes a progressive fee, protecting low- and middle-income families during the transition. Several studies — from Resources for the Future, our own Household Impact Study and the REMI research — have demonstrated that if all revenues are returned equitably, most low- and middle-income families would actually have more money in their pockets — real disposable income — even when taking into account increases in the cost of living resulting from such a fee. This, in turn, would stimulate the economy and create jobs.

What is the likelihood of such legislation being passed? Surprisingly high. A group of retired high-powered Republican advisors and officials calling themselves the Climate Leadership Council have promoted a similar proposal to the White House recently. While this proposal differs in some ways from that suggested by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, it sets the stage for congressional Republicans to lead with carbon pricing legislation.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby has worked with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle for years encouraging leadership on carbon fee and dividend legislation. In the fall of 2015, Rep. Christopher Gibson, R-N.Y., sponsored House Resolution 424 that stated that climate change is real and that Congress should take action to address the impacts. It has just been reintroduced with 17 Republican co-sponsors.

Then in February 2016, Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Democratic Rep. Tom Duetch, both from Florida, started the Climate Solutions Caucus. Currently, there are 26 members, 13 from each party, working together to identify solutions. Citizens’ Climate Lobby is hopeful that we will see bipartisan legislation emerge from this caucus in the near future.

While there is much to be done to mitigate the impacts of our changing climate, placing a fee on greenhouse gas emissions offers an efficient and effective opportunity. As trusted messengers, it is time for health professionals to raise our voices.