While a fossil fuel divestment fight happens this Friday, a climate battle of greater scope ensues in the national political arena, one that could yield greater emissions reductions and that increasingly rallies bipartisan support. The heart of these policies is a price on carbon, for which we are celebrating our newest Nobel Prize recipient, William Nordhaus ’63. A price on carbon has the ability to alter the very basis of economic decision-making and directly accelerate a whole-economy transition toward a low-carbon future. With a national carbon price’s immense change-making power, its increasing national attention and the new platform Students for Carbon Dividends offers us in supporting it, it deserves great attention even as we look to change local institutions. Local solutions are a part of the equation, but with a shrinking window of time to act, we must throw our weight behind expert-backed climate solutions.
Among policies to address climate instability, a price on carbon is a “panacea,” as it’s called by former chair of Harvard’s Economics Department and bestselling economics textbook author N. Gregory Mankiw. It is the one policy prescription that would change the game by embedding the knowledge that we ought to be carbon-efficient in everyday economic transactions. In adding a fee to the production of carbon-intensive energy and products, it would send a price signal throughout the economy, thereby incentivizing the development of carbon-efficient alternatives. A price on carbon changes the calculus of every single economic transaction.
This solution stems from the wisdom of experts. Mankiw states that “[t]here is complete consensus among economists that putting a price on carbon is the right thing to do — and this is economists from the left, from the right and from the middle.” In fact, the world is celebrating Nordhaus precisely for his work on the social cost of carbon in macroeconomic analysis. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made a pronounced policy prescription in its grim October report — a robust carbon price.
Momentum for carbon pricing is growing fast at the national level in an unprecedented bipartisan fashion. For instance, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a carbon pricing lobbying group, has assembled a body within the House of Representatives called the Climate Solutions Caucus made up of 45 Republicans and 45 Democrats who have committed to finding policy solutions to climate change. Just last Wednesday, a bipartisan cohort of congressmen introduced a carbon pricing bill called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. And an organization called the Climate Leadership Council has assembled a coalition ranging from oil companies to leading international environmental groups to develop a breakthrough carbon pricing package called the Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan.
While climate policies are regressive, a carbon-dividends framework directly addresses the costs of climate action incurred by the average American. The Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan proposes putting a price on carbon and rebating all the revenue to citizens in the form of “dividends,” which would make the American lower and middle classes come out financially ahead. The plan would replace carbon regulations, which are piecemeal and regressive, costing consumers without compensating them. And the Baker-Shultz plan is estimated to not just meet the U.S. emissions targets under the Paris climate agreement, but exceed them.
Students for Carbon Dividends, or S4CD, was founded here in February to support this framework. It not only backs this common sense solution, but also, like the Climate Leadership Council, strives to unite traditionally opposed groups behind it. The founding S4CD coalition included prominent college Republican, Democratic and environmental student groups from across the country, most relevantly the Yale College Democrats, the Yale College Republicans and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Since February’s launch, an even more diverse set of groups from around the country has offered up their support to the S4CD cause.
Bipartisan buy-in is a must for lasting climate action. Policy must have support on both sides of the aisle to stand up to the cycling in and out of new administrations and congresses. With an excited national eco-right emerging, students have the opportunity to buoy this trend by offering validating grassroots support. The United States is returning to a time perhaps last seen under former President George H. W. Bush ’48, where global climate crises were addressed with bipartisan leadership.
Because the nation keeps tabs on activism here, Yalies have a special place in the activist world. Local fights are important, and climate change activists should be commended because climate change is the greatest challenge of our historical moment. But we must not forget the very significant developments happening at the national policy level. In the rally this Friday, let us not forget the wisdom of Nordhaus.
George Gemelas is a founder of Students for Carbon Dividends. He graduated from Yale College in 2018 and is a student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .