OPED, MARCH 16, 2014
Let’s put the market to work fighting climate change
Bill Blancato/Guest columnist
Assume you are running a business when one day nine knowledgeable people with nothing to gain if your business survives or fails tell you that if you don’t stop engaging in a particular practice, your business will likely fail in a few years. While pondering what to do, a 10th person tells you that the other nine don’t know what they are talking about and that their research is flawed. While pondering this information, you learn that the 10th person is being paid by the company whose products you would have to stop or reduce using if you are to save your business. What do you do? If you are rational, you discount the 10th person’s opinion and act on the information provided by the first nine.
Efforts to address global climate change are similar to the problem confronted by this business owner. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree the problem is real. Yet we are frozen because of the three percent, some of whom are paid by the companies whose products we must use less of, who keep trying to cast doubt on the 97 percent by arguing the science is unsettled. But the science is settled. It is settled that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that CO2 has risen to levels unprecedented in human history, that global ice caps are melting and the rate of melt is increasing, that nine-tenths of the earth’s glaciers are retreating, that January 2014 was the fourth warmest January on record and was the 347th consecutive month that global temperatures were above the average for the 20th century, that sea levels are rising and the rate of rise is accelerating, and that humans are contributing to the problem.
What is unsettled is exactly how this will play out. Temperatures will rise, but how much? Sea levels will rise, but will it be three feet or 15 feet by 2100? Is there a 30 percent, 50 percent or 70 percent chance that millions of Americans will be displaced? Do we need a 100-percent chance of catastrophe before doing something?
Insurers and the department of defense haven’t ignored climate change. Property insurers incorporate climate-change projections into their models; clear evidence the market accepts the problem as real. And while Congress has not mustered the courage to do something, the Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review says “climate change poses a long term strategic challenge to American security and international stability” and “will have significant geopolitical impacts around the world.”
Something should be done to curtail CO2 emissions, but what? The answer can be found in economics. Some may recall when all manner of noxious things could be dumped in the river. There were no direct costs to the dumpers; people downstream incurred the cost through fish kills and degradation of the water supply. The Clean Water Act prohibited such discharges, which transferred the cost of cleaning up the mess to the person making it instead of the person receiving it. Likewise, the cost of dumping CO2 in the atmosphere is borne by everyone, not by the people who use the most CO2. Given the ubiquity of CO2 discharges, simply prohibiting discharges is not practical. Instead, most economists agree that a price should be placed on carbon to approximate the cost that CO2 emissions cause. So the tax does not put a drag on the economy, it should be revenue neutral.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby (https://citizensclimatelobby.org) is lobbying Congress to enact a carbon tax under which all revenue collected is returned to the public as a monthly or annual payment. The tax is collected at the first point of sale – wells, mines and ports of entry for imported fuels. To protect our domestic industries, a levy would be placed on goods from countries that do not price carbon similarly. With carbon’s price advantage removed, cleaner energy resources will be competitive and the power of the market will be unleashed to find the best alternatives to fossil fuels.
I hope to have grandchildren someday. Everyone says they’re wonderful. A child born today has a life expectancy of more than 80 years, which means many children born this year will be alive in 2100 and will see the displacements caused by global warning. I don’t want my grandchildren or anyone’s child or grandchild to have to deal with that. For our children and grandchildren, let’s urge Congress to enact a revenue neutral carbon tax and unleash the power of the market to solve this problem.
Bill Blancato is a Winston-Salem attorney who has organized a local group for Citizens’ Climate Lobby.