The danger is imminent. The world cannot afford another round of nice-sounding proposals followed by inaction. Congress must go big on climate change.
One plan, the sprawling Clean Future Act, released earlier this month by the leaders of several House committees, would have the country reach net-zero greenhouse emissions by mid-century, starting with massive decarbonization of the electricity sector over the next decade. The bill would require utilities to derive increasing amounts of their electricity from clean sources, which include renewables, nuclear power and, for a limited time and at a discounted rate, natural-gas-fired power plants. The bill would invest in electric car infrastructure, compensate coal country for lost jobs and ask states to develop emissions-cutting plans that would address any areas federal programs failed to cover.
Elements of the Clean Future Act might have bipartisan appeal, but the package as a whole is unlikely to attract GOP support. No doubt sensing that Democrats would seek to impose emissions regulations and mandates, as does the Clean Future Act, some Republicans and industry players have begun talking up market-based reforms that would be less costly and disruptive. Major oil companies now favor taxing at some level the carbon content of fuels such as gasoline. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called for such a tax in February. Even the American Petroleum Institute, a longtime opponent of climate action, is reportedly considering endorsing a carbon tax.
These voices should have spoken up a decade ago. Democrats have been reluctant to embrace such a plan since 2010, when they proposed a carbon pricing bill and slammed into a wall of coal-state and industry opposition. Since then, the left has soured on market-based emissions policies. Many Democrats now favor massive spending and regulations instead.
But market-based incentives should be part of any climate legislation, for reasons of policy and politics alike. Democrats need more than their side to get a comprehensive bill. They need 10 Republican votes to reach 60 in the Senate. The only other option is using reconciliation, a parliamentary maneuver that allows budget-related bills to pass the Senate by a simple majority. But climate mandates would not qualify for reconciliation. Using reconciliation, Democrats could enact massive federal subsidies but not climate regulations. They also could impose carbon taxes, or a mix of carbon taxes and spending.
In a functional Congress, this situation would produce a deal: Mr. Romney and other GOP senators would offer a carbon tax; Democrats would insist that some of its revenue go to underserved communities and renewable energy research; the nation would get a climate plan. Mr. Romney should try. Democrats should listen. If it does not work, Democrats must find another path. One way or another, this Senate must approve a strong climate policy.
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