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Henry Swayze: Engage the profit motive to reverse climate change

This commentary is by Henry Swayze of Tunbridge and Burlington, a longtime student of climate change, co-host of “Greenzine,” a weekly environmental show on Royalton Community Radio, and a board member of the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition.

What is it going to take to bring on board the power of human creativity, complete with the power of investment?

Currently, many pellets of silver buckshot have been brought to bear on the subject of climate change/warming. Progress is happening, but not at a rate that is likely to keep us below a temperature rise of 2 degrees C, much less 1.5 degrees C.

As the temperature rises, the warming feedback loops take over. Science tells us 1.5 degrees C will keep much of the Earth habitable, and that going to 2 degrees is likely not only to further shrink our habitable land but could drive us into an ever-warming Earth.

We are on a short time line to radically bend the curve without hitting the 2-degree mark.

So what is keeping us from hitting this target? Fossil fuel, cheap energy, has created great wealth, including the creation of a middle class just after World War II. At the same time, the US moved to a cheap food policy that has added to our warming, but that will be a subject for another opinion post.

The capitalist system has focused on making money and rewarding the efficiency of the market, but in the process it has not paid all of its costs. Pollution that fell outside of the regulatory process was largely ignored. Now we have a warming Earth complete with wars and migration being driven by warming caused by our burning of fossil fuel and a cheap-food land-management policy.

It is time to send a message to corporations and investors that cost-free pollution must come to an end to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Knowing that polluting will cost them, the profit sector will embrace innovative change and sustainable development by unleashing capital and human resources.

In 2015, Mobil Oil had a forward-looking committee on sustainability. When the Paris climate conference failed to put a price on carbon pollution, Mobil pulled the plug on that work and replaced it with a campaign to throw doubt on the science behind global warming. A price message would have stopped that change of direction.

So how do we deliver that price message? Many approaches have been developed but none have been enacted into law. It will have to be a delivery system acceptable to an overwhelming number of Americans.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens Climate Lobby has set out to find just such an approach called Fee and Dividend. The fee is a price paid for bringing fossil fuel into the market. This price has a yearly escalator clause. These funds are entirely held to be paid back to the public as a monthly dividend on an equal share per person.

This system does not allow money to flow into the general coffers that might get diverted to other projects; hence, the small-government-thinking conservatives like it. And because it is distributed equally back to each individual, everyone gets a share in the income.

It turns out that, although lower-income folks spend a greater proportion of their income on fuel, they use so much less than upper-income folks, they will get a dividend that exceeds their higher cost of fuel purchases. This fact makes this system attractive to the progressive side.

We need to send that price message, and Fee and Dividend has the right balance to get passed. It will send a message of change to the fossil fuel industry and investors to change direction toward sustainability.

Call your US senators and representatives. Ask your out-of-state friends to do the same. Together we can put the train back on the track.

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