Op-ed: Up-ending the carbon status quo

By James Gustave Speth

With the Trump administration doing everything it can to eliminate progress made in combating climate change, it is particularly important for forward-thinking states like Vermont to take action. Because of the urgency of the issue, it is quite disappointing to see this year’s legislative session draw to a close without any bold climate legislation making it to the governor’s desk.

Vermonters deserve better. We deserve an economy that reflects our shared values of environmental stewardship and care for the least advantaged among us, today and into the future. Recent Vermont proposals to put a fee on climate polluting carbon emissions would be a major step in the right direction. The genius of these proposals is that they take this modest fee on one of our society’s most threatening pollutants and put it toward cutting taxes or providing each Vermonter with a quarterly check in the mail.

Let’s take a moment to remember how urgent this is – all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today. That’s with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.

But the global economy is certainly not holding at current levels. It took all of history for the world economy to reach $7 trillion in 1950. Now, we grow by that amount globally in a decade.

The science-based case for action to forestall climate change has been clear for decades. When I was chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, we released four reports reviewing the science of climate change, which was compelling even then, and calling for action. The failure of Congress to act on this issue is the greatest dereliction of civil responsibility in the history of the Republic. The fact that other nations are now beginning to act seriously to protect our climate future makes the Trump administration’s actions doubly tragic.

Vermont, small though it is, has set a good example for the nation in many areas. Our robust renewable energy industry is a testament to what we can accomplish, but the cold, hard science tells us we still have a long way to go. Let’s change the energy playing field by putting a price on carbon pollution that allows us to continue to lead the way to a clean energy future.

James Gustave Speth is the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, founder and president of the World Resources Institute and cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is currently a fellow at Vermont Law School and lives in Strafford, Vt.

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