It’s time to get specific about climate solutions.
Coming off of Earth Week and Biden’s global climate summit, it’s clear that the U.S. has no idea how to address climate change. Vague, meandering pledges about emissions reductions take the stage, while Instagram has us scrolling through brand statements and tips for eco-friendly living - all of it leaving us feeling either guilty, self-righteous, or helpless. Meanwhile, we're releasing 16.5 million tons of carbon dioxide daily, plummeting towards 1.5 degrees celsius and farther than ever from the UN’s carbon neutral by 2050 goal. Fashion relies on agriculture and a global supply chain, both which will be devastated by the effects of climate change, and yet the industry remains silent on legislation and unchecked on regulation, holding rank as approximately the 3rd most carbon costly industry on the planet.
The thing is - the solution is right in front of us. In the House of Representatives, to be exact. A solution which 40 other high-GDP countries (aka high-carbon emitting countries), including the entire EU, the UK, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Argentina, have long implemented with economic and ecological success. It’s called a carbon fee and dividend. Specifically, HR2307, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.
Before we get triggered or turned off by the word “fee,” let’s clarify - it’s definitively not a euphemism for “tax,” as it doesn’t grow government. The magic is in the “dividend.” It’s how the solution becomes distinctly American.
So what is it - and how does it work?
A fee on carbon is a government-imposed price on fossil fuels - coal, oil, gasoline and natural gas - at the source of extraction. Rather, it’s a market correction, as fossil fuels are subsidized by $5.2 trillion annually, essentially functioning at a negative price. The fees then trickle down the supply chain, catching more where there’s significant carbon expenditure, and less where measures have been taken to reduce emissions. At the proposed $15 a ton/emissions, raised by $10 every subsequent year until year 10, the average small business would hardly notice a difference in wholesale costs, and if passed down to the consumer, we could expect to pay just pennies more for a quality retail product.
Any difference on the consumer end is well compensated by the built-in dividend - 100% of carbon taxes collected, minus administrative costs, are returned to citizens in the form of a monthly check with no spending restrictions. Around 95% of low and middle wealth American households would actually go up under a system of climate income, acting as a sort of UBI (Universal Basic Income). By year 10 of the program, the average family of four would be receiving around $3,000 a year in dividends. Money that’s likely to be directed straight back into brand’s pockets.
Well-designed carbon pricing has the potential to change the behavior of both business and consumerism for the better. Economists widely agree it’s the most efficient, effective and available way to curb climate change, with the fewest adverse economic effects. Even a modest disincentive for fossil fuels spurs America’s signature pioneer spirit into action, incentivizing innovations in energy and technology and encouraging businesses to come up with their own creative solutions for reducing emissions, with fiscal rewards for their efforts. Too long we’ve been suckling at the teat of fossil fuels, and creatively, we’re reaching the point of diminished return. Bloated industries like fashion could benefit from the Finnish penchant for “sisu,” or adversity-born strength. Take it from the world’s first country to introduce a carbon fee, reporting emissions reductions of 25% and improved economic growth of 75% since implemented in 1995.
Fashion, unlike tech, has almost zero conversation with government. Lobbying is built into corporate responsibility of companies like Apple and Microsoft. Fashion is hard up to endorse any specific legislation, either viewing political activism as a risk to business or hesitant to self-impose regulation. Longtime nonpartisan lobbying organization CCL (Citizens’ Climate Lobby) has been informing sustainable apparel moguls like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher on carbon pricing for years - no signers yet. The problem is, no one wants to be first - and they’re more focused on independent effort. Allbirds has gone so far as to carbon tax themselves. Commendable, but it doesn’t solve the actual problem of climate change. We’ve got to work together from both the bottom up and the top down. Sustainable fashion isn’t showing up for real systemic change without including lobbying for legislation in the mission.
Our general mistrust of politics prevents us from meeting our own system halfway. We don’t make the connection that our representatives are representative of us. Most reps are holding virtual “town halls” on a monthly basis for their constituents to speak up. It’s rare to see a face under 40 in attendance. My experience in lobbying has only informed me how accessible our representatives are - after all, they’re only human. Busy humans, who need citizen informants on America’s most important issues - and solutions.
Maybe carbon pricing is just not that instagrammable. But the real work may not be. Maybe our attention is elsewhere, in the more acute social crises. But all of the work is interrelated, including gender politics and the BLM movement. Climate change disproportionately affects people of color, statistically increasing marginalization, crime, domestic violence, natural disaster and refugees. And a dividend overwhelming benefits the most socially vulnerable. By zooming our efforts out, a carbon fee and dividend could act as an umbrella solution for America’s biggest issues.
Biden will be passing his climate bill this November. Given the urgency of our climate needs, and the availability of an almost silver-bullet solution, we should be working on making a carbon fee and dividend go viral. Fashion is well poised to lead the conversation. Getting it in the vernacular of the American people seems to be essential to getting it out of the waiting room of American politics.