Use carbon tax to save planet

The Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal deserve special praise for giving front-page coverage to the latest report on climate change, part of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, a government report produced every four years (“Changing climate to put further pressure on New England, federal report predicts,” Nov. 24). It details the very significant impacts already being observed here in Maine.

The Climate Assessment gives information about warming temperatures, increased precipitation and bigger storms, the likelihood of serious contamination by flooding, the fishing industry’s gloomy forecast, and acidification of ocean waters predicting the demise of the shellfish industry, etc.

Northeastern states have already seen the greatest changes, and more are predicted. As Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, noted, “Steps must be taken to reduce climate warming emissions.”

Sen. Angus King’s comments go further and are worth repeating: “As today’s report makes abundantly clear, we are grossly failing ourselves and our children in the face of an increasingly dangerous threat. It’s time to listen to the scientists who have for decades warned of the serious consequences of climate change for our economy, our ecosystems and our national defense. Generations of future Americans will judge us harshly for anything less than a full response to this crisis — not a denial, not excuses, not equivocation. We need to act. We need to act now.”

So what action should be taken? The answer is to put a price on the very thing that is causing climate change, namely emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — something we rely on for almost everything we do.

This week, a bipartisan bill, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, was introduced in Congress. It would do just that. It proposes to put an economy-wide price on all fossil fuels at their source, the coal mine or oil well or gas well. The price would start at $15 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions (which would add about 15 cents on a gallon of gasoline) and increase annually at $10 per year. Call it a “pollution tax” if you will.

However, instead of adding to government coffers, all revenue would be returned to the economy as an equal dividend to all adults, with half dividends for children (up to two per household). Your first dividend check would come prior to the first tax being imposed. Call the monthly dividend a “climate security check” if you like.

Pricing carbon fuels will incentivize industry and commerce to innovate in how they manufacture goods and get them to market. Alternative energy sources will become cheaper over time as the price of fossil fuels increases. Free market competition will determine which products get to market cheaper.

Yes, some items will become more expensive, but the dividend will allow us to choose alternatives ourselves, as well as rethinking energy efficiency throughout our lives. You too are part of the free market.

Milton Friedman had similar thoughts about reducing pollution. His notion was to “impose a tax on the amount of pollutants emitted by a car, thus making it in the self-interest of car manufacturers and consumers to keep down pollution.”

Friedman was a champion of small government, the kind that holds people accountable when something they’re doing negatively affects others not involved. If there is no such accountability, polluters hide the true costs of their products or actions by dumping — yes, literally dumping — waste into the environment, via smokestacks and vehicle exhausts, polluting the air we breathe.

More recently, Yale Professor William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his detailed analyses showing that a carbon tax is by far the most effective way to lower carbon emissions. It is more efficient than using government controls such as regulating emission standards for vehicles and power plants. For comparison, raising the price of tobacco reduced smoking.

So how far does this get us in cutting carbon emissions and slowing climate change? The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report spelled out the urgency of keeping global temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. It called for reducing emissions 50 percent by 2030. The new bill before Congress comes very close. So, Congress, get it done!

Peter Garrett, Ph.D., Earth Science, is coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby in Maine. He lives in Winslow.

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