A day after President Trump signed an executive order to reverse Barack Obama’s regulatory effort against climate change, an instructive event took place on Beacon Hill.
Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the Climate Change Initiative at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, stood before a packed room in the State House and guided lawmakers, staffers, and other attendees through an exercise in climate-change policy making. Dividing the audience into three groups — the developed world, the rapidly developing countries, and the less developed countries — she asked each for the percentages and dates by which they would reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. She then entered their answers on her Mac and projected the results onto a screen. And presto: In an instant, everyone could see the impact of those hypothetical carbon-reduction commitments on meeting the Paris Agreement target of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or less, with the hope of keeping the increase to no more than 1.5 Celsius.
Rooney-Varga then switched to an array of policy possibilities, things like increasing taxes on fossil fuels, such as coal and oil or boosting subsidies for carbon-clean technologies such as renewables or nuclear energy. And for technological breakthroughs that might somehow reduce carbon emissions. Each time she’d run a scenario, the audience would see the effects on one graph that projected future energy use by type and another that tracked worldwide greenhouse gas emissions against the level needed to meet the Paris target.
Rooney-Varga and others who work closely with Climate Interactive are using those tools to edify people about climate policy options. (Philanthropist alert: A couple hundred thousand dollars would help her take the climate-education exercise on the regional road in a bigger way.)
With the national administration shifting to a do-nothing policy on climate change, other actors, from towns to cities to states to companies, must pick up the slack. But to push those efforts along, this country needs more citizens who are educated about the issue and policy possibilities.
The big takeaway of her climate-change presentation: There is no silver bullet on global warming. The closest such policy? A revenue-neutral carbon tax, which would make the price of carbon-based energy reflect the cost of the environmental damage they cause; if the revenues were rebated to citizens in uniform amounts, those with lower carbon footprints would effectively get a bonus for their climate conscientiousness.
A carbon tax is something climate-change activists and experts are coalescing around. Some senior GOP statesmen have even endorsed the idea. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include President Trump and his menagerie of misologists. Trump is starting to reverse Obama-era Clean Power regulations, a move that won’t bring back an industry decimated by cheaper natural gas but might win him coal-country credit for trying.
Although the United States will now clearly cede climate-change leadership to Europe and perhaps (ironically enough) China, Rooney-Varga said it’s important for those who believe in science to press the cause on other levels. But is it really possible for a country to work around its myopic president to keep us moving toward our Paris carbon-reduction goals?
“I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t think it was possible,” she said. “We have an opportunity, a moral duty. But we need to step it up and make our actions known beyond our borders, so when people look to the US, they are not just looking at what the Trump administration is saying, but are seeing the action being taken by the networks of cities and subnational actors.”
That’s a cause for everyone determined to push forward on climate in these benighted times.