Climate Dispatches: Price on carbon must be part of this year’s climate legislation


On Aug. 10, the U.S. Senate passed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that had been dominating the news for weeks.  The bill, which still needs House approval, includes some meaningful climate measures.

According to media reports, the bill contains investments in zero- and low-emission buses and ferries, public transit, upgraded power infrastructure to facilitate the expansion of renewable energy, electric vehicle charging stations, battery technology, and carbon capture technology. Beyond these climate mitigation measures, there is funding to help adapt to the climate change impacts we are already seeing. This includes reducing damage from flooding by buying or elevating homes at risk from floods, restoring coastal habitats and protecting coastal communities, and “wildfire defense grants” to at risk communities (like ours).

It is exciting to see that the infrastructure bill was crafted and passed in a bipartisan way — 50 Democrats and 19 Republicans voted for it.  Addressing climate change should be an issue that is a bridge — not a wedge — between the two parties.

But the infrastructure deal falls short of including major climate policy.  And with the release earlier this month of the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we know we will need bold action to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. This global group of eminent climate scientists emphasized that we need to reduce emissions faster and more deeply than ever before.

“We’ve known for decades that the world is warming, but this report tells us that recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid, intensifying, and unprecedented in thousands of years,” Ko Barrett, vice chair of the IPCC said in a press briefing. “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change.”

While this is alarming, there is one clear take away from the IPCC report: it is not too late. We still have a small window of opportunity to reduce our emissions and avoid the worst consequences. If we act with urgency right now, there is still hope.

It is looking increasingly likely the biggest climate measures in Congress will now happen through the budget reconciliation process.  So far, a border adjustment fee, a fee on methane emissions, and a clean energy standard for utilities have all been mentioned publicly. This represents good progress, but one more essential element of strong climate policy should be included in the budget legislation: a price on carbon.

We would like Representative McClintock and Senators Feinstein and Padilla to ensure that a robust price on carbon is part of the budget bill. Economists say carbon pricing is the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed necessary. For us here in the Sierra Nevada, a policy like this would mean cleaner air and reduced health risks, more clean energy jobs, more stability for the national parks, forests and lakes our economy depends on, and reduced danger of wildfire.

There are three key reasons why it is essential for the U.S. to include carbon pricing in our strategy to address climate change:

First, it puts us on track to net-zero by 2050. The carbon-fee-and-dividend policy prescribed in the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 2307) sets a price that starts at $15 a ton of C02 and increases $10 a ton annually. Resources for the Future calculates that by 2030 this policy will reduce U.S. emissions more than 50% below 2005 levels, which is in line to get us to President Biden’s goal of net-zero carbon by 2050.

Next, it’s a fast, effective policy across the whole economy. A clean electricity standard would reduce emissions from power plants, but that only accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. An economy-wide price on carbon, however, reaches into every sector — electricity, transportation, industry, commercial/residential real estate, agriculture and land use. It’s also quick to set up, leading to meaningful impact in a matter of months.

Finally, some, or all, of the revenue could be used to give money back to Americans. A carbon tax becomes affordable for ordinary Americans when the money collected from fossil fuel companies is given as a dividend, or “carbon cash back” payment, to every American to spend with no restrictions. This protects low- and middle-income Americans who otherwise might not be able to afford the transition.

Beyond those reasons for action here at home, we’re under pressure from other countries that are already pricing carbon. The European Union announced it will impose a carbon border tax, beginning in 2023, on imports from nations that do not have an equivalent carbon price. When this goes into effect, American exporters will be subject to the European carbon tax, placing them at a competitive disadvantage. However, if the U.S. implements its own carbon price and carbon border adjustment, the policy can keep American businesses competitive and motivate more nations to price carbon themselves. The Biden administration has floated a carbon border adjustment, but based on the World Trade Organization’s rules, we would likely need to put a price on carbon here at home, too.

In the last few weeks, more than 21,000 concerned citizens have reached out to their U.S. Senators, including California’s Senators Feinstein and Padilla, asking them to support a price on carbon in the budget reconciliation bill. Now, the same outreach is taking place in the House of Representatives.

Please lend your voice to these efforts by going to and where you can get easy directions to call your members of Congress.  This quick and easy action by thousands of concerned citizens can collectively make all the difference. Please consider taking part and sharing this action with five other folks you know.

Deirdre Henderson and Matt Tucker are co-leaders of the North Tahoe Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby

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