Standing at a podium with a “Science saves lives” poster taped to the front, Congressman Tom O’Halleran issued a string of forceful words about the need for the nation to act on climate change.
“We have glaciers retreating, we have our oceans warming, we have our coral reefs dying, we have our forests still burning and yet here we are still having to try to fight for the right of people to have a future,” O’Halleran said to a handful of citizens and reporters Monday at Flagstaff City Hall. “We have to do something about it. There is no denying the fact that climate change is taking place.”
In spite of those strong statements, the congressman has yet to take a position on one of the key concepts promoted by those hoping to reduce the nation’s climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions: a carbon fee and dividend program.
The Flagstaff City Council endorsed such a program in September. The fee, tied to greenhouse gas emissions, would gradually increase and would be levied on producers and importers. While prices for fossil fuels would rise, the money collected from the fee would be returned to U.S. households in the form of a dividend.
O’Halleran promised a Flagstaff audience in July that he would take a look at the program and on Monday he said he is still in the evaluation process.
He said his office is analyzing the impacts of a carbon fee program on taxpayers and also studying whether current energy trends away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables will be enough to drive down carbon emissions to a point where government intervention isn’t needed.
“It looks like the next 10 to 20 years it will take place with or without a tax,” O’Halleran said.
Members of the Citizens Climate Lobby, which is a proponent of the carbon fee and dividend program, say such a wait-and-see approach won’t be adequate.
The move toward fossil-free sources simply isn’t happening quickly enough, even with incentives for renewables in place, said Don Bayles, a member of Flagstaff's Citizens Climate Lobby.
The only way the world can achieve the Paris climate agreement goals of limiting global temperature increase is to put a price on carbon emissions, said Bill Barron, regional coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby.
“Going to more efficient and cheaper natural gas is not going to get us there,” Barron said.
O’Halleran has repeatedly expressed his support for continued U.S. participation in the Paris agreement.
O’Halleran also acknowledged that he has not joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives. The bipartisan group works on policy options to address climate change.
O’Halleran said he considered the group but stopped joining a lot of caucuses because they don’t meet.
“A caucus sometimes is just for the sake of saying you care about the issue,” he said.
Instead, he said he publicizes his concern about climate change “all the time.”
“I put press releases out, I've put it on my website. I was working on climate change before it became a major issue,” he said.
But Bayles, who is a First Congressional District liaison for the Citizens Climate Lobby, said the Climate Solutions Caucus is, in fact, working. Bayles credited the Republican members of the caucus in helping to defeat an amendment this summer that would have prevented the Department of Defense from studying the impacts of climate change on the military.
“The Climate Solutions Caucus was instrumental in that effort and we think there will be more policy movement form that caucus going forward,” Bayles said.
The Citizens Climate Lobby is hopeful O’Halleran will join the caucus’ ranks at some point, though he would have to do so with a Republican colleague because of the way the group is set up, Bayles said.
Also on Monday, O’Halleran said he has shifted toward more fully supporting the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation to reduce climate change-causing pollution from power plants. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt issued a rule Tuesday to dismantle the regulation, a move that O’Halleran strongly criticized.
FLAKE, MCCAIN GET DIFFERING REVIEWS
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s name was brought up repeatedly at Monday’s press conference as speakers criticized his failure to call for legislation to address climate change. They had much kinder words about Flake’s counterpart Sen. John McCain, however.
Arizona’s senior senator recently made headlines for bringing up the subject of climate change in a television interview, though he also has worked on the issue in the past. McCain supported a cap and trade system as recently as 2008 but, according to a September High Country News article, “hasn’t been prominent on the issue since his loss to Obama in 2008.”
Then in September, in a widely-quoted CNN interview, McCain seemed to pivot, saying that things are happening with the world’s climate that are “unprecedented.”