By Christine Todd Whitman
Harvard Law Review
November 8, 2018

In early October, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming new report on the impact climate change will have on the planet by 2040. These new findings, reviewed by ninety-one international scientists, are worrisome because it now seems that disaster is possible with an even smaller increase in global temperatures than previously estimated. In fact, the report indicates that if urgent and unprecedented change does not take place, we are at risk of losing our planet to the effects of global warming – extreme heat, drought, floods, poverty and the like.

Despite these predictions, the United States – the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China – has been slow to make necessary changes to reduce emissions. The Trump Administration has had a hostile attitude toward science, the EPA’s professionals, and our global partners, but I still believe measurable action on climate change is possible with a renewed embrace of nuclear energy and industry’s leadership on carbon emissions.

After President Trump’s election, he made good on a campaign promise to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. I’ve made my opinion of President Trump known on many occasions, and I am dismayed at the way this Administration views climate change and the role of the EPA, which I led under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003. Additionally, I’ve been baffled for the blatant disregard of science by this EPA and the White House. The administration has dismissed high level officials and will be dissolving the Office of the Science Advisor. As a former EPA Administrator, I find this is extremely concerning.

I have been a vocal supporter of global cooperation on climate issues, and I believe the Paris Climate Agreement was vital to holding countries accountable in achieving a common global goal. However, the Paris agreement was not a silver bullet. If we truly want to tackle climate change, it will take serious work from all sides – government, industry, individuals, and ENGOs.

A serious response to combating climate change, while also meeting baseload power needs for both advanced and developing countries, includes both nuclear power in the long term and cleaner burning natural gas in the short term. Environmental groups that oppose these two forms of power generation do so at their own peril. Wind and solar power offer a lot of promise and will serve a key role in our energy portfolio. But they are by their very nature unpredictable and cannot meet current baseload demand.

At a time when the IPCC is calling for cutting emissions in half over the next twelve years, it is unfathomable that the U.S. and other developed nations are turning away from the cleanest and most reliable source of power – nuclear. Nuclear energy has zero carbon emissions and is able to meet incredible demand with unmatched reliability. Post Fukushima, many countries started to phase out their nuclear power generation. Wind and solar are not adequate replacements. So instead, carbon-emitting sources have stepped in to fill the gap. That’s a step backwards in the fight against climate change, and it is totally self-inflicted by politicians. Any future conversation must include nuclear.

I was encouraged this year by the Climate Leadership Council’s (CLC) proposal to tax carbon, a first step in reducing emissions. This effort was spearheaded by James Baker and George Shultz, two esteemed former Secretaries of State, and was coauthored by many other right-leaning thought leaders. I was pleased to consult on the proposal and contribute to the foreword of the report, Exceeding Paris.

Working with the oil and gas industry, the CLC has proactively crafted a carbon tax proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The industry has long favored the transparency and efficiency of a direct carbon tax over cap-and-trade mechanisms. The industry has resisted carbon regulation for some time, but I am encouraged to see them come to the table with a substantive plan to reduce emissions as the reality of climate change becomes more tangible and more immediate.

Skeptics of the plan on the left are likely to dismiss it because it is favored by the oil and gas industry. This is misguided. Their willingness to endorse any climate solution should be embraced.

The CLC proposal has four pillars. First, it would impose a gradually increasing carbon fee implemented at the refinery or the first point of entry into the economy. Second, the proceeds collected from this would be returned back to Americans via a quarterly dividend, helping offset the increased price of fuel and electricity. Third, border adjustments on imports and exports would be applied to protect American competitiveness and encourage other nations to implement policies that reduce carbon. Finally, many existing burdensome and ineffective regulations would be phased out.

Not only does the CLC proposal make a carbon tax more palatable politically, but its carbon reduction goals exceed those proposed by the Paris agreement. I believe this could be a true way forward for the U.S. on climate.

Achieving consensus on this proposal in Washington, D.C. is admittedly challenging. Industry buy-in is a huge first step, and hopefully a real bipartisan conversation on climate policy can begin now that the midterm elections are behind us.

The recent IPCC report is alarming. But it is still possible to reverse warming trends with cooperation across the political spectrum. It means using science – not scare tactics – and analytical thinking to assess the value of nuclear power in our energy portfolio. And it means applauding the oil and gas industry for coming to the table, not admonishing them for what they have yet to do. President Trump has done the climate cause no favors, but that doesn’t mean Congress, industry, and those truly concerned about the environment can’t come to together to make progress.