A Carbon Tax Is Our Only Hope

Carbon emissions are causing global warming. Global warming is a slow motion disaster. The consensus is that we must make drastic changes soon. How? We need a carbon tax. A carbon tax is our only hope. Time for a carbon tax now.

Climate science is complex, and energy policy is complex, but the fundamental problem with humanity's reaction to the global warming crisis is simple: the costs imposed by global warming are not immediately apparent, and so we tend to ignore them. By the time they become immediately apparent, it is too late to solve them. Global warming is the sort of problem that demands that we sacrifice today in order to benefit an unseen future. It demands that we spend a nice sunny spring day building a storm shelter to protect us from future storms. We'd rather spend the nice spring day sipping lemonade. When the storm comes, we suffer for that. It's a modern version of The Ant and the Grasshopper. We are not naturally predisposed to throw all of our resources into battling a problem that cannot be clearly seen right this minute.

Our political system—and the political systems of most countries around the world—rewards short term thinking, not long term thinking. Voters tend to vote for the candidate who has most recently pleased them. Our economic system—and the economic systems of most countries around the world, in this globalized economic environment—rewards short term thinking. Shareholders are in search of constant growth in stock price and profits, and the fortunes of corporate executives who make the decisions are tied to how successfully they satisfy that demand. The typical life of the typical human being on earth rewards short term thinking. Most people are not wealthy. Demands are constant. Resources are limited. People tend to put their immediate needs first.

There is no immediate incentive for political leaders, corporate leaders, or the billions of people who might apply pressure to them to sacrifice today in order to try to do something about a problem that may be coming many years from now. And so we her on Planet Earth have not done anything much about global warming, even as we see its consequences approaching.

This is plainly irrational, because we know that its consequences will come: recall the UN's recent assessment that "Though it remains technically possible to keep planetary warming to a tolerable level, only an intensive push over the next 15 years to bring those emissions under control can achieve the goal." But in the political and economic system as it exists now, it is perfectly possible—likely, even—to put off a response to a slow-motion disaster like global warming until it is too late to do anything about it. We tend to address problems when they become apparent to one and all. The nature of global warming is that by the time it becomes apparent to one and all—when the water creeps into your living room, and the hurricanes intensify enough to blow away your house, and the droughts destroy all the crops—the window of opportunity to do something about it has already passed. This makes getting enough consensus to create enough global action to meaningfully address the problem now, while we still can, a rather thorny undertaking.

It seems unlikely that the entire global political and economic order will spontaneously reorient itself towards long-term problem solving in the next 15 years. Therefore, the only hope for bringing about a change in a reasonable period of time is to make the painful consequences of global warming felt right now. We can't speed up the sea level rise. Outlawing coal power plants is impractical. What we can do is make pollution expensive. We can change the economic incentives. And a carbon tax is the simplest and most effective way to do that.

Why does a pack of cigarettes cost fifteen fucking dollars in New York City? Because New York City uses taxes to add the future costs of smoking to the cost of smoking today. We know that smokers end up costing society a lot of money for health care years down the road; with cigarette taxes, smokers in the city pay those costs up front. The realization of the true cost of a negative behavior is quite an effective way to not only pay those costs, but also to change the behavior.

This is the basic rationale for a carbon tax. We know that carbon emissions are causing global warming, which will impose a disastrous cost on all of humanity in the years to come. So make those who emit carbon pay those costs up front, by taxing them. This is not a new idea in the U.S.; a modest version of it, known as "cap and trade," has been favored for decades by Republicans and Democrats alike as a way to control certain emissions in the past. But multiple efforts in the past decade to apply cap and trade to carbon emissions have failed in Congress. Republican Congressional leader John Boehner objected that cap and trade would "raise electricity prices [and] increase gasoline prices."

Yes; that is the point, you pitiful fucking excuse for a national leader. Carbon taxes are designed to raise the price of things that produce a lot of carbon, because carbon emissions are going to cause an enormous generations-long global disaster if we do not somehow bring them under control. The Obama administration is set to unveil a new version of cap and trade, under the guise of EPA regulations, to be administered by the respective states. Business interests and lobbyists, energy industry players, and politicians from coal states are all expected to oppose it. Their argument boils down to: it will cost too much.

They're wrong. It will raise costs now. It has the potential to save us all much more devastating, disastrous, existential costs down the road. Unwillingness to make necessary sacrifices for the good of everyone now and in the future is a detestable personality trait endemic to children, craven politicians, and greedy business interests. None of those three groups should be put in charge of our nation's energy policies.

The fact is that in the world in which we live, a carbon tax—preferably a harsh one that increases over time, raising the incentive to move towards alternate and less harmful (and less expensive) energy sources—is the only real solution to the global warming crisis. There is no other tactic that will have as big an impact on carbon emissions within our 15-year window of opportunity for action. Forces that operate solely out of self interest will continue to oppose any and all sacrifices right up until the sea swallows their vacation homes. Forget them. The activists and political leaders who have genuine concern about this issue must all unite around some form of carbon tax as a solution. Fighting polluters on a piecemeal basis will not be enough. Public education campaigns will not be enough. Global warming must be made too expensive to be viable. Tax the hell out of it. It's not unfair pricing. On the contrary, it is the only way to make carbon emissions exactly as expensive as they deserve to be.

[Image by Jim Cooke]