Editorial: The price of carbon emissions

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Last week, three events sent the same message: Act now to reduce the carbon emissions or things will get worse – much, much worse.

The first came in a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Without dramatic action, the myriad disasters associated with global warming will occur far sooner than once thought, the 91 scientists who contributed to the report warned. Not just rising seas, more powerful storms, droughts and wildfires, but the mass migration of potentially millions of people and the social unrest that would result.

The second message came with the announcement that Yale economist William Nordhaus was awarded a Nobel Prize for work that demonstrates that a worldwide tax on carbon emissions is the surest remedy for climate change and that the tax could be levied without harm to the economy.

The third message came from Mother Nature as yet another powerful hurricane slammed into coastal America, this time the Florida Panhandle. It devastated the region.

The bill for ignoring the need to greatly reduce the burning of fossil fuels is growing rapidly, and every American is paying the price. Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $90 billion in damages to Puerto Rico; Hurricane Irma more than $35 billion to south Florida; Harvey, an estimated $180 billion to Texas; Florence, which hit the Carolinas less than a month ago, some $20 billion. Estimates from Hurricane Michael aren’t in yet, but judging from photos and first-hand accounts the bill will be huge. America’s taxpayers will pick up much of the cost under a cockamamie system that pays to rebuild the same flooded property in the same place time and time again.

The science, despite deniers like the nation’s president, is settled. The greater the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the faster the planet warms. The warmer the ocean, whose heat serves as the engine for storms, the more powerful the hurricanes. The climate change panel moved up the date when a 2.7-degree rise in the atmosphere’s temperature will result in major coastal flooding and other ills to 2040. A child born today could face a hotter, harsher world when he or she graduates from college.

The need for a carbon tax has been obvious for decades. In fact, nearly a decade ago New Hampshire joined with nine other states to form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a compact that instituted what is effectively a tax on the carbon emitted by power plants. The tax is modest. A permit to emit a ton of carbon dioxide went for just $4.50 at this year’s auction.

Nordhaus would start the tax at $30 per ton but to meet climate targets that would prevent island nations from disappearing beneath the seas the tax would have to be much higher. Nordhaus would prefer to see a revenue neutral system in which the money raised by the tax is rebated to consumers to offset higher energy prices. That’s probably the most politically palatable way to institute a carbon tax but we prefer a split system. Rebate some of the money and spend the rest on measures to increase energy efficiency and a move away from fossil fuels.

New Hampshire initially used all of the revenue from its share of the tax to fund conservation and alternative energy measures, but today more than three-quarters of it is rebated. It amounts to cents per month and goes unnoticed. Meanwhile, thousands of low-income residents need help weatherizing their homes. New Hampshire, despite its early leadership, is no longer doing its part to prevent a steamy future. The rebates should be scrapped.