Dueling Carbon Dividends Plans at the GSO Science Cafe

(Last Updated On: April 19, 2017)


The future is now. Google plans to put its first self-driving cars on the roads this summer. Diseases that once meant certain death can be fixed with a visit to the pharmacy. Still, many Americans don’t have time to appreciate these advancements in their daily lives beyond sharing an article on Facebook or scrolling political Twitter fights on the reality of climate change.

The Greensboro Science Cafe seeks to deepen the average person’s involvement with science content by holding live scientific debates open to the public. Their next topic: the possibility of American households getting free money from oil companies through carbon fee dividends. It might sound unlikely, but not long ago, so did the self-driving cars.

Science cafes have popped up all over the world. The Greensboro Science Cafe was co-founded in 2013 by physicist Diedrich Schmidt and Randall Hayes, Ph.D., a neuroscience teacher at the Governor’s School of North Carolina. Hayes explained that what sets science cafes of the world apart from TED Talks and other popular lecture series is the audience participation.

“It’s designed to be the opposite of an academic lecture,” Hayes said. “With an academic lecture, you would have 45 or 50 minutes of talking and maybe 10 minutes of questions. We reverse that: the speaker gets 10 minutes of intro material, just to set the parameters of the discussion, then 45 or 50 minutes of Q&A.”

On April 27, the cafe will host a panel of experts from many fields, including economics, business, and sociology, to debate the best way to implement a carbon dividends program in the United States.

When carbon dividends are brought up, most Americans think of Alaska. Alaskans have received money from the state’s oil industry via the Permanent Fund Dividends program since 1976. However, Alaska’s funding comes from its oil drilling revenue, while carbon fee dividends come from a tax paid by oil companies, based on how many tons of CO2 they produce.

“This is designed to phase out fossil fuels because as the price increases over time and people use less of it, you should have fewer emissions; whereas the Alaska program is basically designed to get the citizens to support as much drilling as possible,” said Hayes.

Between lowered emissions and dividends that would disproportionately benefit America’s poorest, the fee and dividend model has gained popular support. It is also gaining traction on both sides of the political aisle. But while conservatives and liberals agree that carbon fees and dividends could benefit Americans as well as the rest of the world, they disagree on how to get there.

In recent months, the conservative-backed Climate Leadership Council (CLC) and the Citizen’s Climate Lobby (CCL) both proposed versions of a nationwide carbon fee and dividend program. The CCL is an international group that describes itself as nonpartisan, but its plan emphasizes creating clean energy jobs and empowering individuals to connect with and their representatives to create policy change at a local level.

The initial steps of both plans are nearly identical:

1. Oil companies pay a fee that grows slowly over time, starting anywhere from $15 to $40 per ton of CO2.
2. Fee money is given to the public through dividends.
3. Countries that don’t use the fee and dividend system will be hit with a border tax before they can import oil to the US. This is meant to encourage other countries to take on the same system and discourage US companies from moving overseas to avoid the carbon tax at home.
The CLC plan has a fourth step: removing the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions, on the grounds that oil companies will have the threat of higher fees to keep their emissions low without federal involvement.
“That’s the red meat to get conservatives on board with the plan,” said Hayes.
The CCL plan doesn’t have an official fourth step, but they do want the dividends to be adjusted for population control, so that families can only receive increased dividends for their first two children.
According to Hayes, the plans’ differences have less to do with climate change and more to do with the values of the people behind each.

“As nonpartisan scientists, we want to look at plans that come from both of the two major groups. Otherwise, it just looks like you’re lobbying,” he said.

At the next Greensboro Science Cafe, both plans will be laid out in detail by multiple speakers, who will then give the floor to the audience for what’s sure to be a lively question and answer session. Hayes expects the meeting will run over the usual hour limit. That’s okay; a bipartisan move to aid Americans while helping the Earth is news worth talking about.

The panel will start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 27 at Gibb’s Hundred Brewing Company on West Lewis Street. For more information, visit the Greensboro Science Cafe on Facebook:

Mia Osborn is a Greensboro-based freelance writer who hails from Birmingham, Alabama.