Climate change has never been an isolated problem, but policies often treat it like one. For vulnerable communities in the United States, the impact of a changing climate is part of a suite of problems — economic, social and environmental — that hits disproportionately hard. For those whose livelihoods have depended on fossil fuels, the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy has its own economic and social challenges. Building a strong and resilient future for all people living in the U.S. requires addressing these problems holistically.

Yesterday Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz, along with Senators Martin Heinrich, Kirsten Gillibrand, Chris Murphy, Jack Reed and Dianne Feinstein, introduced an innovative bill that aims to do just that. 

In addition to charging a fee on carbon polluters nationally, the Save Our Future Act would charge fees to polluters that emit substances that cause smog and other health hazards in communities at particular risk to this pollution. Proceeds from the fees would pay for investments in these communities, support fossil fuel workers and their communities and dividends for people in the U.S.

Washington D.C., DC, USA
Capitol Hill in Washington DC, U.S.A. Photo by Michael Schofield

This bill opens the policy discussion on what we need to build a clean, equitable and sound economy, and has earned support from the Utility Workers Union of America, the American Sustainable Business Council, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, The Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Putting a price on carbon pollution has been debated for decades. Sixty-four carbon pricing systems are in place or scheduled for implementation around the world, covering over 20% of global emissions. This bill would implement a national carbon fee along with measures to address local pollution in environmental justice communities, where this local issue is often of much more immediate concern than climate change. It also offers support to what the bill calls “energy veterans,” referring to people whose livelihoods and communities are based on fossil fuels.

Local Pollution and Environmental Justice

Frontline communities have long been disproportionately burdened by major air pollution from industry, highways and other sources. Criteria pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter directly affect the health and wellbeing of local residents. While climate change will also disproportionately affect these people — they'll be less able to move, rebuild and respond to increasing wildfires, sea level rise, hurricanes and other climate impacts — local pollution problems must be addressed as well.  This bill addresses these local pollution concerns directly.

First, it would charge a fee to major facilities that emit criteria pollutants within environmental justice communities, which it defines as communities of color, low-income communities, and Tribal or indigenous communities, creating economic pressure and incentives to reduce this pollution.

Second, it would invest a portion of the carbon fee and all the local pollutant fee in these communities, including money to improve enforcement of air pollution laws. This money would also go to workforce development, energy efficiency, clean transportation and grants to local communities and organizations to address the environmental and public health issues of greatest concern to their communities.

Energy Veterans and Their Communities

The transition to a clean energy economy raises serious concerns for energy veterans and for their communities. For U.S. climate policy to succeed, it needs to include strong measures to offer a path forward for these workers and their communities. When mines and power plants close, workers, their families and their communities need support to get back on their feet.

This bill would provide five years of wage replacement, health insurance coverage and continued retirement savings for mine or power plant workers who lose their jobs when these facilities close. It would also make these workers and their children eligible for free tuition at public universities, community colleges and vocational schools in their state.

Additional funds would be available to local governments that lose tax revenue due to mine or power plant closures, and for environmental restoration.

Dividends for Families

Low-income families spend a greater share of their income on energy than richer families, so any carbon fee needs to be designed to address the potential for disproportionate effects from any energy price increase from a carbon fee. This bill would use a portion of the carbon fee revenues for annual dividends for households in the U.S., with $800 per adult and $300 per dependent paid through refundable tax credits paid in advance. The delivery mechanism and means testing for these dividends would be similar to those for stimulus payments during the pandemic. These dividends would allow most low- and moderate-income families to come out ahead.

Climate change solutions need to address the immediate needs of all communities in the U.S. while tackling greenhouse gas emissions. By putting local pollution on an equal footing with greenhouse gases and providing critical investments in both environmental justice and communities that depend on fossil fuels for employment, the Save Our Future Act offers an innovative path forward.