Here’s why a carbon tax is key to fighting global warming
By Jon Clark
When it comes to why the United States lacks serious climate change legislation that would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize our climate, there are many poor excuses but no good reasons.
One common excuse is what a friend of mine calls the China excuse. It goes like this: China is building new coal-fired power plants so why should we hobble ourselves with a carbon tax? The answer is there are many good reasons to pass a revenue-neutral carbon tax, one of the best being that by doing so we can put pressure on developing countries like China to clean up their act as well.
We are digging up and releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in the past 800,000 years – before humans existed, sea levels were much higher and the earth was much hotter.
By treating our atmosphere like a garbage dump and allowing society to pump unlimited quantities of carbon pollution into it free of charge, we are recreating the chemical composition of our atmosphere from millions of years ago.
Our climate, the ice sheets and sea levels are responding to the change. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere were 280 parts per million (ppm); in 2013 we passed 400 ppm.
Recently James Hansen and 17 of the world’s leading climate experts published a new study where they make the strongest case to date for a target of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air, or about 1 degree celsius (1.8 degrees F) total warming. Many scientists consider 350 ppm a “safe” level of carbon dioxide.
The study recommends that greenhouse gas emissions should decline by 6% per year starting immediately to avoid disaster. We are currently raising carbon dioxide levels globally by 2 percent to 3 percent per year.
The solution that economists recommend is taxing carbon pollution to make up for the hidden costs to society by burning fossil fuels. Taxing the bad stuff we want less of -like carbon pollution- makes much more sense than taxing the stuff we want more of – like income.
A “tax swap” would make the carbon tax revenue-neutral by returning equally to taxpayers 100 percent of the revenue collected and ensure that poor and middle-class families are not negatively affected.
This market signal would shift investment money away from fossil fuels and towards clean, carbon-free forms of energy and manufacturing, making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels. Where investment dollars flow, jobs will follow.
Here is the best part about a carbon tax. To protect American businesses from being undercut by foreign corporations (much like what happened to American solar manufacturer Solyndra when China dumped a large amount of heavily-subsidized solar panels on our market), we can tax imports from countries that do not a have a price on carbon emissions.
These countries would be forced to pay border penalties to the United States to retain access to lucrative American markets. The only way for the countries to avoid these penalties would be for those countries to also put a price on carbon.
Experts say this would not violate any current trade agreements “provided that policymakers carefully design a [carbon] tax, keeping in mind the basic requirements of the World Trade Organization not to discriminate in favor of domestic producers or to favor imports from certain countries over others… the threat of World Trade Organization challenges should not present a barrier to policymakers wishing to adopt a carbon tax system now.”
This is according to Jennifer Hillman, who was approved in December 2007 by the members of the World Trade Organization to serve as one of the seven members of the World Trade Organization’s appellate body, the final adjudicator of international trade disputes.
The China excuse doesn’t hold up under scrutiny and is actually a good reason for us to enact a revenue-neutral carbon tax with border tax adjustments on countries without a price on carbon.
With carbon dioxide levels going in the wrong direction, Congress can take a leadership role in addressing climate change by passing a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
If we do this smartly, we can put the power of the free-market to work to grow our economy while cleaning up our air and water and preserving a relatively stable climate for future generations.
As Hansen and the 17 other climate experts conclude in their study, “Our parent’s generation did not know that their energy use would harm future generations and other life on the planet. If we do not change our course, we can only pretend that we did not know.”
Jon Clark is Mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby.