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SOTU: Hey, Congress, Climate Action Train Is Leaving the Station

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama made it clear that the wheels are now in motion to address the threat of climate change:

Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. But we have to act with more urgency - because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods. That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.

The president's first preference for cutting carbon was for a legislative solution that puts a price on carbon, and he said as much in last year's State of the Union address:

I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

If the need to act on climate change wasn't already apparent, the roll out last fall of the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored that need dramatically. For the first time, the IPCC warned that the world has a "carbon budget" of 1 trillion tons that can be "safely" -- a relative term, of course -- emitted into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Exceeding the carbon budget, the IPCC says, will result in breaching the 2 degrees Celsius threshold of warming, beyond which efforts to adapt will be exceedingly difficult. Having spent half that budget already, the world is on track to spend the remainder in the coming decades unless we drastically curtail our consumption of fossil fuels.

With a renewed commitment and sense of urgency to act on climate change -- and his patience with Congress to provide that "market-based solution" wearing thin -- Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan last June. The plan uses a combination of executive orders, financial incentives and Environmental Protection Agency initiatives to increase energy efficiency, develop and scale up clean technologies, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For Republicans in Congress, the biggest bone of contention in the president's plan is directing EPA to establish carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants. Sen. Mitch McConnell has already announced that he will introduce a resolution of disapproval of the new EPA rules, even though those rules have yet to be finalized.

The EPA published its proposed regulation for new plants earlier this month, kicking off a 60-day period for public comment. The new rule would make it difficult for new coal-fired power plants to be built in the U.S. unless those plants can capture 20 to 40 percent of their carbon. Following a series of listening sessions held throughout the U.S., the EPA is expected to publish rules for existing plants in June.

Republicans, of course, view the new EPA regulations as an expansion of government that runs counter to conservative principles. But rather than fight the new regulations -- a battle already decided by the federal courts -- the GOP can come to the table with a climate solution that engages the free market to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That solution is a steadily-rising tax on carbon-based fuels that returns all revenue to households. Worries that American businesses would suffer unfair competition from nations lacking a carbon price could be assuaged with a border tariff on goods from nations that lack an equivalent pricing mechanism.

This approach is already embraced by a number of conservatives, who maintain that the free market can fix the climate problem, but only if we fix the distortion in the market that allows polluters free access to our skies.

One of those advocates is former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, who's defining that ideological sweet spot between progressives who want a price on carbon and conservatives who want free enterprise -- not the government -- to be the driver of the change that's needed. In an oped published in the Newark Star-Ledger, Inglis had this to say:

Acting smartly on climate means understanding that we can't tank the economy today to avoid the uncertainties of tomorrow. A strong economy is our best hope of innovating so as to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We need pro-growth, pro-innovation policies that are affordable and flexible and that don't grow the government. The best policies would actually shrink government.

Here's how that might work. Put a tax on carbon pollution that would accurately price the harm of those emissions. We can debate what that price should be, but it's clearly north of zero. Pair that carbon tax with a dollar-for-dollar reduction in some existing tax on income. This tax swap would boost economic growth and innovation.

Step 1: Hold hearings

After listening to the president's speech Tuesday night, it should be obvious to members of Congress that the train moving toward action on climate change is leaving the station. Republicans, who thus far have refused to come to the table, now find themselves standing on the platform looking toward a future that includes more federal regulation.

There is still time to put the climate action train on a different track, one that uses the power of the free market to help businesses and consumers make the transition to clean energy and greater energy efficiency.

An important first step is to start a meaningful dialogue in Congress about a revenue-neutral carbon tax by holding hearings in the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

Congress can help our nation and the world step back from the precipice of climate disaster by enacting a tax on carbon that gives money back to the people.

President Obama said it best Tuesday night: "The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."

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