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Tax carbon to slow climate change

Last modified: 11/14/2011 12:00:00 AM
A few weeks ago, after conducting a multi-year study funded in fair measure by the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers, University of California professor Richard Muller, one of the more credible skeptics of global warming, announced his findings. The great majority of scientists who claimed that the world's climate was warming at a fair clip, Muller said, are right.

Muller's findings produced a gamut of responses. In climate skeptic circles, he had committed apostasy. In the broader scientific community the reaction was essentially, "What took you so long? Didn't you notice that the glaciers are disappearing, permafrost melting, sea level rising and polar bears drowning?"

Last month, nine Democrats in the U.S. House decided to swim upstream through the sewage that is Washington politics to introduce the Save Our Climate Act, a bill that would impose, at its onset, a $10 per ton tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Their goal is to reduce emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels.

In the current political climate, for such a bill to stand a chance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's ice cream cone would have to melt all over his hand before he could raise it to his mouth. But the act's proponents shouldn't give up. With a presidential race under way and major contenders like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney campaigning on "drill, baby, drill" platforms, it's the perfect time to offer an alternative vision of America's energy future.

The climate act, whose chief sponsor is California Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, would raise a whopping $2.6 trillion over the next decade, most of which would be rebated to energy users who would pay more for power that was produced with less harm to the environment. The rest of the money would go toward deficit reduction, spending that will reduce the tax burden on future generations. To prevent the tax from imposing an unfair disadvantage on American companies, the bill wisely calls for the carbon tax to be applied in tariff form to imported goods.

A carbon tax, compared to cap-and-trade systems like the regional compact that New Hampshire participates in, is easy to administrate. It requires minimal bureaucracy, is less easy to game and is a more direct means of reducing emissions. Emit more carbon dioxide and pay more in taxes; switch to a cleaner form of power, pay less.

The climate is warming and would continue to heat up if all carbon emissions were curtailed tomorrow. The question is how hot will it get and how soon. The nation, indeed the world, is engaged in a race between the technology required to produce energy without fueling climate change and the technology required to extract fossil fuels long thought too expensive to recover.

At the moment fossil fuel recovery technology is winning. Vast supplies of natural gas are being tapped, deep-water oil fields developed and Canada's vast supply of oil locked in tar sands extracted. The profits from the development of those energy resources will go to investors, but the added harm from global warming will be paid by everyone. A tax on carbon would recognize that harm, raise money to mitigate it, and make alternative forms of energy more competitive economically. It's a tax that's long overdue.


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