The word “corporation” does not appear in our Constitution or Bill of Rights. But as Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse notes in his book Captured, corporations had already grown so powerful by 1816 that Thomas Jefferson urged Americans to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Today the conflict between the unfettered greed of unregulated capitalism and the right of the people to regulate industry with self-governance has reached extreme proportions. Corporations now have more power than many nations and feel justified in manipulating democracy to improve their bottom lines instead of the common good.
Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than in the U.S. energy industry. Fossil fuel interests spend more than $900 million annually selling the fantasy their products do not cause climate change. The industry is one of several that have perfected a combination of public relations and electoral spending that has placed Congress in a stranglehold of dysfunction.
Of course the problem doesn’t stop there. We have a president who believes the fake news he sees on social media—for example, that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese—and who is conducting what many consider to be a war on science. Pres. Donald Trump has populated his administration with leaders who have agendas diametrically opposed to the agencies they lead. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is a climate change denier who objects to environmental regulations. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is also a climate denier. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who as Exxon CEO is alleged to have misled investors about climate change, has deprioritized it at the State Department. U.S. Food and Drug Agency chief scientist Sam Clovis, also a denier, has no graduate training in science.
This vacuum of reality-based leadership in Washington presents an opportunity for leaders at the state level. I am running for governor of Minnesota, and in my travels around the state I have heard voters express great frustration with the paralysis and dysfunction in D.C. They want our leaders to start solving problems again. Climate change is one of those problems, underemployment is another.
I recently released the Minnesota-Powered Clean Energy Plan. It offers one possible model for states to tackle both underemployment and climate change as an economic development opportunity, creating between 70,000 and 235,000 jobs that pay 42 percent above average and cannot be outsourced.
The plan achieves this by placing a price on fossil fuel companies of $40 per metric ton of CO2 at the point the fuel enters the state’s economy. Three quarters of the revenue generated is paid to Minnesota residents in the form of quarterly clean-energy cash dividends totaling about $600 annually. The other quarter of the revenue is paid to residents as refundable clean energy tax credits covering 30 percent of the cost of new and used electric cars, solar systems, heat pumps and energy-efficiency improvements.
The tax credits are stackable with federal tax credits, so many purchases can be financed with close to no money down and would realize immediate savings. This initiative will create jobs statewide because the need for clean energy upgrades is statewide. This influx of higher-paying jobs will tighten up the labor market, driving up wages. The price of renewables will decrease along with family living expenses while improving health outcomes.
The Minnesota Plan does what voters long for. It solves real-world problems without raising taxes; it is revenue neutral. By providing the mechanism to empower people to take charge of their own energy, it allows the free market to adapt and assist with the transformation.
Carbon pricing is not a new concept. It is supported by organizations ranging from the Citizens’ Climate Lobby to the conservative Climate Leadership Council. Forty countries and 24 cities, states and provinces already price carbon. Finland, which is about the size of Minnesota, was the first country to enact a carbon price in 1990. The U.K.’s carbon price has been credited for the steep drop in carbon emissions there, to levels not seen since 1894.
We can do the same thing in the U.S. If other state leaders adopt similar proposals, the 2018 midterm elections could become a watershed moment when America seizes on a new state-level approach to tackling climate change and finally begins to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg. It’s long overdue, and the very least that we can do for our children.