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Democrats Prepare To Take The House, Vow To Put Climate Change On The Agenda


Democrats take over the House of Representatives next week, and they're promising to make climate change a bigger issue. Since the midterms, environmental activists have held rallies on Capitol Hill to push for action, and two bipartisan bills were recently introduced to create a carbon tax to address climate change. NPR's Jeff Brady joins us now. Hi, Jeff.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with those two bills. People have talked for years about a carbon tax. How would these new proposals work?

BRADY: You can think of them sort of like sin taxes on cigarettes or alcohol. And the basic idea is to put a price on emitting carbon dioxide. CO2 of course - it's the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. But this carbon tax idea - it's been around for a long time. Nothing has really gotten any traction. Talking about increasing taxes - you know, that's always hard.

And the proposal in Congress now - that also would raise gasoline prices quite a bit, probably more than a dollar a gallon over the first decade that it's in place. It also would increase utility bills for a lot of people. Backers of the proposal try to address this by returning the tens of billions of dollars the government would collect to taxpayers in dividend checks.

SHAPIRO: A string of reports lately have warned that unless carbon dioxide emissions are quickly reduced, the effects of climate change are going to get much worse pretty soon. What effect would these proposals have on that trajectory?

BRADY: The folks at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy have a preliminary analysis out. And if the bill in Congress now became law soon, the U.S. likely would reduce its carbon emissions even more than what the country committed to in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. And that makes sense to me because when gas gets up around $4 a gallon, people start buying smaller cars and driving less.

SHAPIRO: What has the response from fossil fuel companies been to this?

BRADY: You know, some big oil companies actually support a price on carbon to address climate change, and that's mostly because they prefer, you know, a market-based solution instead of stricter regulations, which could be coming to address climate change.

So companies like ExxonMobil and Conoco - they've recently pledged to spend several million dollars to back a different carbon tax plan than what's in Congress now. That one likely will be introduced in the coming year. It's less aggressive on the CO2 reductions, and it includes some provisions that environmental groups certainly don't like. One of those would exempt fossil fuel companies from being sued over climate change.

A big utility company called Exelon is also backing that plan. The company has a lot of nuclear power plants which don't produce the carbon emissions that fossil fuel plants do, so they would stand to gain from a carbon tax.

SHAPIRO: And what do newly empowered Democrats want when they talk about addressing climate change in the next couple years?

BRADY: Well, they are not talking about carbon taxes, but we are hearing from - especially from young activists asking lawmakers to sign this Green New Deal, and that focuses a lot more on wholesale reforms to the country's energy system, things like mandating a hundred percent renewable energy by a certain time.

SHAPIRO: President Trump questions climate science, and Republicans in the Senate will have more power next year than they did last year. Is there any chance of environmental climate change legislation passing in the next two years in any form?

BRADY: Probably not, but supporters imagine that, you know, the lay of the land might change after the 2020 election, and they want to start a conversation now hoping that by then it'll be easier to get something signed into law. And in the meantime, Democrats say they'll push to address climate change through legislation on infrastructure, and that's something President Trump has talked a lot about.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jeff Brady, thanks a lot.

BRADY: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.