It’s time to put a price on carbon

The United States should set a persuasive example for the rest of the world.

 

Many coal-supporting Westerners cheered when the Supreme Court halted the federal government’s implementation of its Clean Power Plan, pending judicial review. But even though the attorneys general of Colorado, Wyoming and other states might succeed in gutting the Clean Power Plan, they can never do what they really want to do: They cannot return the world to the 1990s.

Low-sulphur, high-Btu coal from the Powder River Basin and other Western coalfields was king back then. Now, the science of climate change has become too compelling, the risks too worrisome, and the ultimate costs too great. If you parse most criticism of the Clean Power Plan, it sounds like this: Technological innovation reached its peak after World War II, when we developed large power plants fired by burning coal. The electricity produced was cheap, and we still need it as a reliable base nationwide. 

Really? Have we as a species completely run out of new ideas? The challenge for the mostly Republican critics in coal-rich Western states is to come up with a better path forward than the Clean Power Plan if we hope to solve the problem of a planet increasingly out of whack. One market-based solution is to put a price on carbon emissions.

Because the problem is not the actual coal, natural gas or other carbon sources. The problem is the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere whenever we burn these fuels. Right now, there is no charge for using the sky as one giant dumping ground. But take bald tires and old stoves to a landfill, and you will be assessed a dumping fee. Similarly, we need to establish an atmospheric dumping fee.

The atmospheric dumping we currently allow has accelerated at a stunning rate. We added 35 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere during the first two centuries of the Industrial Revolution, and just in my lifetime, we’ve added 85 ppm more.  That puts us at 400 ppm. Within 15 to 20 years, we’ll be at 450 ppm. That threshold may make us warmer; it could also torque the climate in unpredictable ways, like a washing machine thrown out of balance. Nobody really knows. Climate science still has gaps and unanswered questions. Like all of human knowledge, it is a work in progress. 

Brad Mead was dead-on when he analyzed the state of our knowledge in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole News&Guide this way: “Any scientific theory that encompasses the complexity of weather and climate on a global scale is bound to have teething problems.” 

Mead, an attorney and the brother of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, cited University of Wyoming research on methods of carbon sequestration. But the technology is only part of the problem. The marketplace needs motivation to make whatever process researchers develop economically viable. If there is no cost to the industries that create the pollution, there is no incentive to innovate. So far, sequestration technology looks hopelessly expensive. Perhaps it always will be, though at one time the same argument was made about solar panels.  Let’s let the marketplace figure it out, setting a price on this risky pollution.

Where would this tax revenue go? Some, such as the advocacy group Citizens’ Climate Lobby, argue for a revenue-neutral carbon “fee.” They would return revenues to the public, eliminating the argument that a carbon fee would only grow the size of government.

Economists say the tax needs to be high enough to instigate change. It also should be phased in gradually, to avoid causing economic heartburn. Others argue for more intense research on solving climate – perhaps a federally funded approach similar in scope to the Manhattan Project. Bill Gates thinks the risks that climate change poses to U.S. interests are so high that we need to triple the federal budget currently allocated to research and development. Wouldn’t it be splendid if the Republican Party produced a leader who could broker the necessary compromises to put a morally justified price on carbon?

Critics of the Clean Power Plan argue that it will, by itself, do little to tame global emissions. They’re technically correct, yet I believe they’re too pessimistic. If you have any belief in American exceptionalism, you should have faith in the ability of the United States to set a persuasive example for the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, our in-limbo Clean Power Plan addresses only emissions from the electric sector, or just 31 percent of total U.S. emissions. We need more comprehensive action. Let the Clean Power Plan’s critics propose their own robust solution to the clear danger of global warming. Let those who rail against regulations frame a market response that will work. It should start with a price on carbon.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He lives in the Denver area and publishes an e-zine called Mountain Town News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.