Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz: ‘Climate Change Is Urgent, Solvable, Human-Caused, and Real’

The lawmaker weighs in on his new plan to tax carbon polluters.

U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), who replaced the late Senator Daniel Inouye, stands with his wife Linda while Vice President Joe Biden administers the oath of office during the re-enactment of his swearing-in ceremony on December 27, 2012. (Photo: Mary Calvert / Reuters)

Mar 15, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

Brian Schatz, appointed in December 2012 to the United States Senate following the death of Daniel Inouye, has staked out an early position as an ardent leader on climate. He recently joined Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) in introducing a climate bill that would put a price on carbon pollution.

“Climate change is urgent, solvable, human-caused, and real,” Schatz tells TakePart, with no equivocation, no hesitation in his voice. “The United States can and should lead on this issue and generate positive momentum.”

How would he and the other authors of the bill handle the obvious difficulty of the coal state Democrats and the Republicans who have blocked climate bills in the past?

First, Schatz would respect their views. The economic implications of a transition to a clean-energy economy means some dislocation, and any bill that they’d consider needs to be sensitive to that fact.

More interesting: Some of his Republican colleagues privately admit that climate change is real. They’re worried about farming, extreme weather, coastlines, and once-frozen landscapes melting. Their party orthodoxy won’t permit them to say so, but they know what’s happening.

And it’s worth emphasizing to those Republicans, and the rest of the country, that climate change is not only an environmental problem to be solved by environmentalists, but an economic problem in which the cost of doing nothing exceeds the cost of taking action.

Schatz's bill is still in the discussion phase. Briefly, it would place a fee, to be determined—$15, $25, $35?—on all six greenhouse gases, collect the fee from large polluters only, and then figure out something to do with the proceeds.

These options include, but are not limited to: returning the proceeds to consumers, especially low-income consumers, paying down the deficit, protecting jobs, cutting taxes, or investing in clean tech.

Some economists believe that the social cost of carbon is closer to $900 per ton than $15 per ton. Schatz wants to find the sweet spot of a price that is sufficiently meaningful to accelerate the transition to a clean-energy economy.

Will anything come of this bill, or the competing Sanders-Boxer carbon fee bill?

Senators Boxer and Wyden are convening a working group of Senators to handle climate legislation. And there’s an appetite among the freshman Senators—Schatz mentions Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM)—to do something, anything, on climate. The House is a different story, but there’s some possibility for Republicans and Democrats to work together on energy-efficiency legislation.

What’s Hawaii’s interest in climate policy? On the one hand, coastal areas and tourism will be hit hard by sea-level rise, and ocean acidification will hurt fisheries. On the other hand, Hawaii has made huge progress toward achieving what Senator Schatz labels a diverse portfolio of energy.

The state has tripled its wind capacity in two years. The Solar Energies Industries Association nicknames it the “solar kahuna” because Hawaiians get a greater proportion of electricity from solar than any other state. The state is also innovating with wave energy and ocean thermal energy generation.

And, Senator Schatz says with pride in his voice, Hawaii’s unemployment rate is in the range of five percent and dropping.

Check out some questions raised by the bill here, and then choose your own carbon adventure by emailing cutcarbon@mail.house.gov with your own suggestions before April 12, 2013.

RL Miller is a climate blogger; on the executive board of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus; editor of twitter-based policy news feeds for House Progressive Caucus and others, @PCNEnvironment and @PCNNatRes; speaker at Netroots Nation; and, in spare time, a practitioner of law and keeper of chickens. TakePart.com