As President Obama announced a national plan to tackle dangerous looming climate change, two Sunbury residents were sitting in wood-paneled offices on Capitol Hill, lobbying legislators for a different, free-market, pro-business solution to both the climate crisis and the current health problems associated with fossil fuels.
I teach writing at Susquehanna University, while my partner and fellow lobbyist, Peterson Toscano, is a Bible scholar. However, neither of us wore our professional hats at the Citizens Climate Lobby international conference, in Washington, D.C.
Rather, we were there as concerned Valley residents and property owners.
Human-caused climate change is real. What we've seen so far -- earlier Valley springs, more frequent floods, hurricanes like Sandy devastating our neighbors -- are only the tiniest beginnings. The enormous size of the Earth's oceans and ice caps provide climate inertia, which can easily fool us. But for an indication of where we're headed, CO2 concentrations recently passed the 400 parts per million mark, a level not seen for millions of years.
The government's Global Change Research Program and the Environmental Protection Agency provide detailed information on regional impacts, and our local Susquehanna Valley picture deeply troubles both of us.
Floods like the 2011 one that devastated Bloomsburg, Danville, and Shamokin Dam stand to become both far more frequent and much more intense. The Sunbury flood wall will be tested. Without emissions reductions, by 2040 or so our local climate is projected to resemble that of the southern Virginia/North Carolina region today, which will affect local farmers. Our state's ski industry is projected soon be a thing of the past.
But future catastrophes aren't the only serious problems associated with fossil fuels. Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to study the hidden costs of oil and coal pollution. In October 2009, the Academy estimated these costs at $120 billion dollars a year, chiefly from damage to people's lungs, from tiny soot particles.
President Obama's climate plan announcement was an understandable attempt to address these problems. But big-government, top-down solutions are almost always less effective than free market ones. We were on the Hill advocating that fossil fuels be treated, fairly, exactly like every other economic activity in our region.
If the Susquehanna Steam or Three Mile Island nuclear power spills radiation into our area, the companies operating these plants will be responsible for cleanup. If any of the factories in our town are found to be damaging our health, they will need to pay for the associated costs.
Yet because the full environmental and health damages from fossil fuels have only recently come to be understood, fossil fuels still enjoy a "free ride" for their pollution and an unfair market advantage relative to nuclear, renewables, and even natural gas.
Citizens Climate Lobby, a non-partisan organization of concerned citizens, proposes to rectify this with a four part solution.
First, we would like to impose a steadily-rising carbon pollution fee at the well, mine, or point of import for the fuel in question.
Second, we would like 100 percent of this fee refunded, as a monthly rebate check, to all American households. Most ordinary Americans would receive much more from the government under this plan than what they would pay in increased energy, transportation, or goods costs. This would also prevent this fee from being used to expand the size of government.
Third, we support a border tariff adjustment to protect American industry -- like, say, our local Sunbury Textiles -- from being placed at a competitive disadvantage. Foreign countries would be able to avoid paying tariffs if they instituted similar carbon fees of their own.
Fourth, we support the elimination of all energy subsidies, whether to fossil fuels, renewables, or any other source.
We believe this solution is fair, sensible, and business-friendly. Placing large checks in Americans' pockets in every month will generate economic growth. By requiring fossil fuel companies to pay an appropriate fee for the damage they do to human health and to the environment, economists tell us wind, solar, and nuclear power will quickly become competitive with oil and coal, spurring the kind of technological innovation that is needed to transition to a green economy. As a bonus, since green energy provides more jobs per kilowater-hour than oil and coal, such a change could provide an employment bonanza.
As market-friendly Republicans, most of our Valley legislators are likely to be critical of the regulation-heavy climate change plan announced this week by President Obama, and rightly so. However, we hope they might seriously consider a plan like ours which is more closely aligned with their philosophy.
Glen Retief, an associate professor of writing at Susquehanna University, is currently founding a Susquehanna Valley chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.