New climate report from UN, ongoing disasters
make it clear: We must cut carbon
Flooding on Sept. 15 cut off the town of Jamestown, Colorado. (Photo from FEMA)
With Congress MIA on solutions, the President is moving ahead with regulations. Opponents of Obama’s plan should stop complaining and consider the market-based approach of a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
“I’ve never seen anything like this.”
It’s a quote that came up numerous times in stories about the flooding in Colorado recently, devastation described as “biblical.” It’s also a quote seen more and more as weather on steroids produces disasters on an unprecedented scale. From walls of flame engulfing forests near Yosemite National Park to subway stations in New York submerged by the storm surge of Sandy, Americans are bearing witness to never-before-seen destruction exacerbated by climate change.
And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its Fifth Assessment Report, we see that we’re heading toward a world where never-before-seen events become the new normal. Like the Surgeon General’s warning to eschew smoking in order to avoid lung cancer, the IPCC is once again warning that continued burning of fossil fuels bears a tremendous cost.
A summary of the new report was released Sept. 27, with the full report to be released Sept. 30. Some of the highlights:
- The certainty scientists have that humans are causing global warming has increased from 90 percent to 95 percent since the last report.
- Sea levels can be expected to rise 3 feet by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.
- There is an upper limit for greenhouse gas emissions, beyond which climate change tipping points will be triggered.
- Looking long-term – beyond 2100 – sea levels could rise 15 to 30 feet.
- Ocean acidity will continue to increase, with dire consequences already playing out.
In another recent report that has implications as far-reaching as the IPCC report, a new study from the University of North Carolina finds that reducing greenhouse gas emissions could save millions of lives annually by the end of the century. And a new study from Stanford and Purdue predicts that global warming will make severe storms more frequent.
As with previous IPCC reports, the 5th Assessment is already under attack by climate skeptics who are part of a well-organized campaign to cast doubt on the science. The history of this campaign – partly responsible for the failure of U.S. climate legislation – and what to expect with the new report is detailed by Greenpeace in the recent release of “Dealing in Doubt: The Climate Denial Machine vs. Climate Science.”
One of the oft-repeated canards is that the Earth has stopped warming. This fallacy is based on the fact that yearly global average temperatures have not exceeded the record set in 1998, when there was an exceptional El Nino effect. As scientists explain, however, the long-term trend for temperature continues to go up. Climate scientist Scott Mandia refutes other skeptics’ arguments in this piece.
Time to cut carbon
The new IPCC report underscores what previous studies – not to mention the climate change-enhanced disasters decimating the U.S. and other countries – have already told us: It’s past time to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially the carbon dioxide spewed by the burning of fossil fuels.
On that score, President Obama is making good on his inaugural pledge to address climate change in the absence of a market-based solution from Congress. Following up on the President’s announcement earlier this summer of steps his administration will take to curb greenhouse gases, the Environmental Protection Agency has now released proposed regulations for new power plants. Regulations on existing power plants are scheduled for next June.
Two days before EPA announced the new regulations, a hearing was held in the House to delve into the President’s climate action plan. The hearing, titled “The Obama Administration’s Climate Change Policies and Activities,” was convened by the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended the plan to regulate greenhouse gases at power plants, and the line of questioning appeared to set the stage for more legislative challenges.
Don’t like regulations? Turn to the market
In his inaugural address, President Obama said he would prefer that Congress enact a market-based solution to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions heating up our planet. That didn’t happen, and because of its negligence, Congress has forced the President to use the tools at his disposal to reduce the risk of climate change. Those tools include regulations to cut carbon emissions from the power plants, the leading source of C02.
Rather than complain about new EPA regulations, opponents of the President’s plan should consider a market-based alternative that is supported by a number of conservatives – a revenue-neutral carbon tax that gives proceeds back to households.
A wide range of economists believes that the market, rather than the government, is the best vehicle for solving the climate problem. But the market fails when there’s a distortion in the price of something. Such a distortion exists with fossil fuels, whose price does not reflect the cost of damage done to society – health costs related to air pollution, security costs related to imported oil, extreme weather damage made worse from climate change. Adjust the price to account for those costs, with a gradually-increasing carbon tax, and the market will work its magic. As renewable energy like solar and wind becomes competitive with and eventually cheaper than coal, oil and gas, the economy will transition to clean energy and greater fuel efficiency, lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Citizens Climate Lobby suggests a tax that starts low — $15 per ton of CO2 – and ramps up aggressively, adding $10 per ton each year. For the sake of simplicity, the tax should be applied as far upstream as practical. Distributing the carbon tax revenue back to the public, preferably through equal payments to all households, would give consumers the additional income to deal with price increases associated with the carbon tax.
In order to protect American businesses from unfair competition – and to keep jobs from going overseas – the carbon tax should include border adjustment tariffs on imports from nations that don’t have equivalent carbon pricing. Rather than enrich the U.S. Treasury, other nations will want to implement their own carbon tax and keep that revenue within their borders. Such tariffs should comply with World Trade Organization rules, as they would only be for the purpose of maintaining a level playing field.
Action needed now
The window of opportunity is rapidly closing to take action that will avert the worst effects of climate change. As IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri recently put it, “We have five minutes before Midnight.” The only way to stop the clock is by taking the path to a clean-energy economy.
As a civilization, we’re already playing Russian roulette with a half-loaded revolver. By putting a predictable, revenue-neutral tax on carbon, we can start to take bullets out of the chambers rather than adding to them.
Next congressional hearing, talk about solutions
The hearing held in the House on Sept. 18 became a forum for members of Congress to complain about the President’s climate action plan. Instead of complaining, the House should convene a follow-up hearing to explore other solutions. There are a number of conservative witnesses who could testify about a revenue-neutral carbon tax:
- Art Laffer, former Reagan economic adviser: “Reduce taxes on something we want more of–income–and tax something we arguably want less of–carbon pollution. It’s a win-win.”
- Greg Mankiw, economic advisor to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney: A “proposed carbon fee — or carbon tax, if you prefer — is more effective and less invasive than the regulatory approach that the federal government has traditionally pursued.”
- Andrew Moylan, R Street Institute: “A revenue-neutral carbon tax coupled with regulatory reform could achieve the same goal the president seeks to address without expanding government or contracting economic opportunity.”
- Gary Becker, Nobel laureate economist: “A carbon tax would encourage producers and consumers to shift toward energy sources that emit less carbon… And revenue neutrality means that it will not have fiscal drag on economic growth.”
- George Shultz, former Secretary of State: “We have to have a system where all forms of energy bear their full costs… and to me the most appealing way is a revenue-neutral carbon tax.”
Upated Sept. 27, 2013