Sometimes it feels like there is little common ground between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to climate change. We don’t agree on the cause, the remedies, or the urgency. But at least one area of agreement is emerging. Below is a quote from a US Senator. Can you tell if the speaker is a Democrat or a Republican?
It’s hard to tell, right? The Senate’s Prove It Act has sponsors from Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and endorsements from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions to the Independent Petroleum Association of America. What does it say?
The Act aims to quantify emissions of key trading products, like steel or solar panels, as they are manufactured in the U.S. versus in other countries. The goal is to demonstrate the cleanliness of our products and eventually to tax dirty imports. Some of the referenced products are related to the energy transition (solar panels, wind turbines, uranium, petroleum, lithium batteries), while others are more generic (steel, cement, glass, aluminum). The countries affected would include our allies, “countries of concern” like China and Russia, and any major exporter of a covered product.
Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA): “Goods produced in the U.S. are the cleanest in the world. This study will help us better understand that advantage as we explore policies that reward cleaner U.S. production at the expense of countries that exploit the environment.”
Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND): “Verifiable data will be a useful tool for our government to build the bonds amongst our allies while putting a spotlight on global polluters and adversaries like China and Russia. This bill will give credit where credit is due: the American innovators and workers who produce goods under the cleanest standards in the world.”
Senator Chris Coons (D-DE): “Demonstrating our comparative advantage in emissions intensity, working with our allies and partners on data sharing, and building on that with future legislation will be a win for the climate, a win for American workers and manufacturers, and a win for global cooperation.”
Coons, who introduced this bill together with Cramer, envisions this analysis supporting a trading alliance among open societies with climate ambitions, namely the US, EU, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Market pressure from import tariffs on dirty goods into these countries would encourage other countries to clean up their economies. He says: “That and that alone will change the Chinese trajectory in terms of their industry. Otherwise, nice speeches at global conferences -- I am skeptical will make a lasting difference. A market mechanism -- that can change the world.”
This idea has been discussed before, but what may be giving it steam of late is the EU’s imminent Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. Starting next month, the EU’s trading partners will need to report emissions associated with certain exports into the EU, and in 2026 an import fee will be assessed on those emissions based on the carbon price that the EU is applying to its own industries. Some Senators want to be sure that we do our own emissions evaluation, which is driving timely support for this bill. Indeed, a uniform and transparent standard for assessing emissions is something that the Prove It Act pushes on. (The full title is “Providing Reliable, Objective, Verifiable Emissions Intensity and Transparency Act of 2023”. You have to credit Senate interns for their acronym skillz.)
One potential difficulty with imposing a fee on dirty imports is that the World Trade Organization doesn’t allow discriminatory pricing. It is easier to assess such a fee if we also have an internal carbon price, as the EU does, but there is no consensus in the U.S. on a domestic carbon price. Nevertheless, the analysis and import adjustment proposed in this bill is a great first step.
One objection to import tariffs is that they can increase prices for Americans. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance warns that “This legislation stems from a marriage of protectionism and the Left’s environmentalism, both of which will hurt the economy and Americans’ pocketbooks.” One question that is still unanswered is, if an import fee is collected, how will it be distributed?
I am encouraged by the bipartisan approach to this. In a debate sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center between Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Coons, Rubio bemoaned a media environment that ignores the quiet work of bipartisan efforts. “If you want to get famous in politics today, say outrageous, nasty things…. Conflict and outrage generates ratings. Bipartisanship and working together on things does not.” He continues: “Bipartisan bills that make sense are the hardest things to pass these days. Because they don’t move the needle politically. Because they don’t get the attention maybe they deserve. Because if it’s not controversial, people figure it must not be that important.”
I hope he is wrong in this case. I appreciate the efforts of politicians who continue to work to find common ground across our parties, especially on the difficult but important issue of climate change.
Notes and References
1. The quote at the top of this blog post is from Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), who introduced the Prove It Act along with Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND).
2. The debate between Rubio and Coons had a great format and a low-key but informed moderator. Sample question (from the segment on climate): How would the Senators, both from very low-lying states, respond to a constituent who asked for advice on buying coastal real estate? On the less positive side, I continue to be surprised by the level of denial among some of our political leaders. Listen to Rubio’s evasive answer when asked why the planet is warming. He is unwilling to acknowledge that the planet is warming because we are burning fossil fuels. I think that is because he knows how difficult it is to forego them entirely, something he mentions often in this debate. Instead, Rubio puts the climate science and “however many UN reports they put out” aside, and notes that coral just a few inches down in his backyard demonstrates that the climate has always been changing. That is what climate scientists are up against. I wish Rubio were clearer with himself and others that, while moving entirely off of fossil fuels is indeed very difficult-- we don’t even know how to do it yet -- there are many demonstrated and inexpensive ways to use much, much less.
Current Climate Data
Global impacts (August 2023), US impacts (August 2023), CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
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