Transcript: “Living on Earth” with host Steve Curwood

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

With John Kerry now Secretary of State, leadership for the crusade to address climate change in the United States Senate has passed to Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer of California and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. And the two have wasted little time in taking up the challenge of President Obama, who has vowed to take executive action on climate change if the Congress fails to act.

Senators Boxer and Sanders have introduced legislation that would, among other measures, impose a twenty dollar per ton fee on carbon emissions that would be mostly rebated to households. Senator Sanders joins us now from Washington, DC. Welcome to Living on Earth!

SANDERS: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: So the centerpiece of your bill is what you're calling a fee and dividend on carbon emissions. How would that work?

SANDERS: Well, the good news here is that what we are doing is focusing on the 3,000 largest emitters of greenhouse gas in the country, putting a fee of $20 per ton of carbon or methane equivalent.

CURWOOD: So this will be what, the oil refinery?

SANDERS: Coal mines, the oil refineries, the natural gas processing plants, or at the point of importation as well - which would deal with about 85 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions. So this is not going to be a fee, which impacts tens and tens and tens of thousands of entities. It's kind of what we call an "upstream”, where the emissions take place.

CURWOOD: So how exactly would it work? How would you impose this?

SANDERS: Look. Here’s the point. Here's the point before we get into all of the details. The important issue to understand right now is that according to the scientific community, we stand the danger of seeing the planet Earth temperature rise by 8°F by the end of this century. If that happens, and we’ve talked to many of the leading scientists who study this issue, what they are telling us is this will cause catastrophic - underline catastrophic - damage to the planet. What we already know is that 12 out of the last 15 years have been the warmest on record. We already know that we’re looking at unprecedented levels of drought, of floods, of extreme weather disturbances like Hurricane Irene or Hurricane Sandy. We’re looking at the continent of Australia burning up. We’re looking at heat waves in Europe the people have never seen before.

The most important issue before we worry about every line of any legislation is, is the Congress of the United States going to wake up and say we have a planetary crisis here and we have got to address it. And if you ask me, and I already deal with a lot of issues out there, my greatest embarrassment of being a member of the United States Congress right now, it is that you have a major political party, the Republican Party, who refuses to listen to what the scientists are saying. You have the ranking member, from a ranking member of the Environmental Committee telling us if you could believe it, that the climate change is a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore and the Hollywood elite and United Nations. I mean, that's where we are. And my fear is that if Congress does not get our act together, you're gonna see more and more extreme weather disturbances, more and more problems which will cost this country and this planet a hell of a lot more than the legislation that Barbara Boxer and I have introduced.

CURWOOD: This carbon fee, this effective carbon tax, where would the money raised from these fees go?

SANDERS: Good question. Among other things, a lot of the money - actually the majority of the money - would go back to the people of United States to help them with any increased energy costs they may incur as we begin to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels. Some people will be forced to pay more for fuel and they will. A lot of money we’re raising, we expect to raise about $1.2 trillion over a 10-year-period. The majority of that money goes right back to the American people to help them pay for increased fuel cost. Significantly we also put a whole lot of money in weatherization, we would rather weatherize a million homes a year.

We would put money into research and development for breakthroughs in can we move more aggressively to sustainable energy? A lot of research being done out there, and we want to be cutting edge in that. We would also invest in worker training to make sure that we had the people available to do the work that we need to transform our energy systems. So, by the way, this also becomes a jobs program because we can put a whole lot of people to work in energy efficiency and weatherization and in sustainable energy.

CURWOOD: So quickly to bring it down to the individual listening to this, maybe he works in Wyoming, drives this truck hundred miles a day to get to work and is worried about the price of gas going up. How does it help him?

SANDERS: It helps him because we would be creating a nation in which his grandchildren and his children would be able to live comfortably. If we do nothing, if we do nothing, the projections are that the droughts that were seeing in the southwestern part of this country, the forest fires that we’re seeing, will only intensify. So the main point to be made is that we don't have much of a choice on this. If we want this planet to be habitable for our kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we have to act.
Now if the question is, will he - and in Vermont, by the way, our people travel long distances to work as well - might he have to pay more for a gallon of gas? I don't know the answer to that. But the reason that we're putting a whole lot of money back into the people is to help them cover the cost. Now, in terms of automobiles and trucks, what we have done - and the Obama people have been good at this - is we have significantly increased the café standards - that is the mileage per gallon that cars and trucks have got to get, and that is the future. I think we have got to provide a lot of support for hybrid technology so that we end up using less gasoline that we currently use. And move toward some degree the electrification of our transportation system.

CURWOOD: So tell me about the timing of this. Why did you decide to submit this legislation now...February 2013?

SANDERS: A couple of reasons. The major reason is this bill actually addresses the problem. What we hear from the scientific community is that we are on the precipice. That if we do not act boldly right now it literally may be too late. There's a point of no return where if we do not cool the planet down, if we do not stop the warming of the planet, it'll be just too late. So what we have introduced is a bill that would cover about 85 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and by doing that it will become a statement to the rest of the world - to China, India, other countries - that the United States is serious about addressing this problem, we want to work with you. So it's not good enough in my view just to give speeches, you know, saying how serious the problem is. You got to take action and we do it.