March 24, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Climate After COVID-19

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As U.S. cases for COVID-19 soar past 30 thousand, it is easy to feel helpless. With the infected population range encompassing both the young and the old, we are all on edge. Whether it is a loved one, a community member, a coworker or a classmate, many of us know someone who is struggling with this virus.

Yet, in times of crisis, there is also opportunity. Despite quotidien, pessimistic news segments, there is also good news. Great news, actually. Our air and water is the cleanest in years. Emissions are down because we are producing and consuming less. In China, carbon dioxide emissions were about 25 percent lower during the first three weeks of February than during the same period last year. The three-week decline is roughly equal to the amount of carbon dioxide that the state of New York puts out in a full year (about 150 million metric tons). According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the average number of “good quality air days” increased 21.5 percent in February compared to the same period last year.

In addition to carbon dioxide emission reductions, China saw a huge decrease in nitrogen dioxide in the air. Nitrogen dioxide is a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities. The graph below shows the difference between 2019 and 2020 levels in Wuhan, China, during January and February.

This positive change to our climate does not have to be temporary. We can have a healthy planet, a healthy society and a healthy economy. How? Tax fossil fuels and return that money to the American people in the form of a “carbon dividend.”

The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763), introduced in the House by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL-22) and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL-19), will do exactly this. If Congress passes this bill, we can achieve the emission reductions seen during this pandemic long after a vaccine is made and given to all Americans.

Economists agree that a gradually increasing carbon fee offers the most cost-effective climate policy solution. The first pillar of this bipartisan plan is an economy-wide fee on CO2 emissions starting at $15 a ton (in 2017 USD) and increasing every year at $10 a ton. If implemented in 2021, this will cut U.S. CO2 emissions in half by 2035 and far exceed the Paris Agreement commitments. All net proceeds from the carbon fee will be returned to the American people on an equal and monthly basis.

H.R.763 is unique in its dividend approach, one that considers the added living costs of a carbon tax on households. For low-income and middle-income families, this dividend will be crucial to economic stability. The graph below shows the projected monthly dividends per household. A family of four will receive approximately $2,000 in carbon dividend payments in the first year. This amount will grow as the carbon fee increases, creating a positive feedback loop: the more the climate is protected, the greater the dividend payments to all Americans.


How can you help get this bipartisan climate solution passed? For starters, you can call your representative. As someone who worked for a U.S. Senator, I can tell you that we record every single legitimate constituent call and deliver it to the elected official, so they know what their constituents want. Here, you can find your representative and their information. Just introduce yourself, convey that you are concerned about climate change and explain why you support H.R. 763. Easy and effective.

Second, you can write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. This will increase public support for this bipartisan climate solution, educate your community and connect you with fellow climate protectors. Third, engaging local businesses around H.R. 763 strengthens collective action and ensures that businesses understand their role in the larger picture.

Although these actions might seem small or unimportant, take comfort in the fact that we are all in this fight together — all taking these actions together, apart. Though these emissions reductions are the result of unfortunate circumstances, our new routines provide us with the opportunity to rethink what is truly important to us. These are the moments — with our days uprooted — when we recognize how much we rely on each other. And, when we get past COVID-19, we can embrace our common threads and work towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

What will the climate be after COVID-19? The answer to that question is in our hands.


Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly states that H.R. 763 started with a fee of $40 a ton and increasing five percent above inflation after that. In fact, it starts at $15 a ton and increases $10 a ton every year. The statistics that were originally cited are from the Baker-Schultz Plan.

Jack Waxman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and Alyssa Marcy is a graduate student. Waxman is the chair of the Climate Committee of Cornell Democrats and Marcy is a member of Climate Justice Cornell. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.