By Reed Hundt
The polling shows that the Democratic candidate needs a strong message on climate change. But those who want to win are aware that the slogan “put a price on carbon” leads directly to the corollary that consumers would pay more for power. Especially in the Midwestern swing states. They might be tempted to say “cap and dividend,” which changes “carbon tax” to “cap” and includes a give-back so that people don’t think the government will keep the money from selling the caps. This a plausible remedy from the anti-climate change file. I’m down with it. But it’s hard to explain. Besides, dividend is something reserved to shareholders. That gets a candidate into Trump territory. So the Dems shy away from articulating these plans. They are at a loss for words. The Socialist candidate does have something to say. It is to socialize all power. China has adopted that system. As a result it will add more coal fired boilers to make electricity in the next few years than the rest of the world will shut off. Socialists tend to have a problem catalyzing investment and innovation. Alas Sanders; alas humanity.
One move is to say that the challenge is enormous but worthwhile. This is the “follow me” tactic. Follow the leader who promises victory by 2035, or 2050, or any date far enough away that nothing from 2021-25 is ommitted to. I don’t like that direction. It lacks plainness. In fact, the move from carbon to clean is as enormous as the move from wireline to wireless communication. Think about this the next time you don’t go to a wireline phone to take a phone call. Was that an enormous step? (Millennials only know what I am talking about from their experiences watching old movies.) This platform shift was driven by innovation and investment, not by putting a tax on wirelines. It delighted consumers. It challenged old companies like AT&T. Some coped. Some didn’t. But it produced no problem for voters. Politicians like Ed Markey were able to explain it (and get some deserved credit) but most just watched the change go by.
The bulk of the wireline to wireless move took about 15 years. The move from carbon to clean has to be accelerated even faster because government has failed for the last 20 years to cause investors to put really big money into clean power investment. Instead, by and large, tax and regulatory policy has propped up the existing carbon infrastructure and allowed change only on the margins, like some solar rooftops. The Democrats were too neoliberal and the Republicans too influenced by the carbon industry. See “A Crisis Wasted” for painful details. It is as if federal and state governments had decided to keep wireline communication in place.
But fortunately that didn’t happen. Instead, from the moment I fortuitously became the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1993, we all moved in the opposite direction. At all times we understood that the key move was to attract private sector investment into wireless. I will spare you these interesting details.
I will show you how this focus on investment translates to a simple climate message for the Democratic nominees right now. It’s pretty easy:
We are going to use $35b in public money, appropriated by Congress, to start a national green bank. It will be a nonprofit instead of a government agency so its activities will not be affected by the turmoil of elections. With this equity capital It is going to cause a trillion dollars of investment to go into clean power generation, transmission routes for clean power to market, rebuilding the grid so its failures don’t set California on fire, subsidizing EV ridesharing so electric miles quickly substitute for gas-driven miles, planting millions of trees in return for a piece of the profits from timber cutting, financing miracle breakthrough technologies, buying coal and keeping it in the ground
We are going to do this with one unbreakable rule: our green bank won’t invest in projects that raise the price of electricity.
And, we are going to show the world how to move quickly to the clean power platform for society and the economy, after which we will tariff imports according to their reliance on carbon emissions, so that in effect we put a carbon tax on imports.
In 30 years the National Climate Bank will pay the $35 billion back to the treasury. Think of it as a 30-year mortgage loan that buys a bright future for the world as opposed to a house.