1:26 PM CDT, July 30, 2012
I know what you’re saying, “Hey, Markley, when will you get back to the posts where you talk about wanting to have sex with your coffee maker? Also, you keep talking about how bad global warming is, but what should we do?”
I’ll spend the next two days talking about this, but let me begin with explaining why I’m unimpressed with vegetarians. Vegetarians spend a lot of time fawning over how the environmental impact and carbon footprint of their diets is much less than that of an omnivore. They are correct about this, but in the end, whoopdi-f***ing-doo. The same goes for owners of hybrid vehicles and others who go around meticulously quantifying their impact on the planet. You can all pat yourselves on the back when a storm surge inundates the entire eastern seaboard.
Moral suasion is all well and good for issues of civil rights or expansion of the social safety net when the timeframe for change follows Dr. King's arch of justice but doesn't really have a ticking "24"-style clock beside it. When it comes to the climate, we’re down to basic problem of math. We literally do not have time to convince every steak-lover to go vegan or Hummer owner that he might as well drive around with a picture of his small penis on the hood. We need to drastically reinvent our transportation, energy, and agricultural systems, and we need to do it very, very quickly. If our kids are still driving cars that get less than 50 miles to the gallon, we are screwed.
That’s why we, the United States of America, need to put a price on carbon. You’ll recall that Obama’s cap-and-trade plan went down in flames in the Senate and was at least partially responsible for the Republican takeover of the House in 2010. Marred by Republicans as “cap-and-tax,” riddled with the bullet holes of fossil fuel interests, getting cap-and-trade back on the congressional agenda will be extremely difficult, even if Obama wins and Democrats somehow retake the House and hold the Senate. It’s an unpopular policy and too many Democrats, like my old Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, rely on backing from coal and oil companies.
Yet, there is an alternative rising, one that has long been supported by James Hansen of NASA and is getting a bit of life breathed into it by Bill McKibben of 350.org. Very basically, tax-and-dividend works like this: a slowly rising tax is leveled on all emissions, and 100% of the proceeds are then divided evenly among all Americans at tax time. This way while some may see the cost of energy rise, most will make the difference back through the dividend. Only people who have very large carbon footprints will see a net loss. This gives people a very personal investment in their own carbon footprint because the lower your emissions, the more money you will earn off of our decarbonizing of the economy. Meanwhile, it will give the business sector an enormous incentive to transition away from burning coal, oil, and gas. The price signal will be clear, innovation will be spurred, and so on.
A few things:
First of all, someone has to come up with a different name for this. Anything with the word “tax” in it is political poison. Even if the majority of Americans would see a net benefit to their checkbook, the easy-to-understand word in the phrase is “tax” and the hard-to-understand word is “dividend.” I don’t know, call it some nonsense combination of words that Americans will instinctively love, like “oral-sex-and-sedentary-lifestyle”.
Secondly, the clear benefit of oral-sex-and-sedentary-lifestyle over cap-and-trade is that instead of trying to explain a complicated scheme of carbon trading that will benefit Wall Street more than the average American, you just have to tell people, “I want to send you a check at the end of the year. Yeah, you’re electricity bill may go up a little and you might have to pay more for gas, but you’ll make it up when I, the government, literally pay you for helping to save the world.”
Finally, we have to admit up front that a U.S. price on carbon will not solve the climate crisis. It's the nation-state equivalent of buying a Prius. On the global stage, it will probably get ugly. Eventually someone will have to step up and start a trade war to bring the entire world into a commitment to leave the most valuable resources on the planet underground. This will actually be the far greater challenge and make carbon pricing look like a bunch of horny teenagers trying to race through their model U.N. so they can break into the bottle of whiskey brought by the kid who’s supposed to be Angola.
However, there’s one hurdle that must be overcome before any carbon pricing scheme can get back on the political radar, which I’ll write about tomorrow.
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