Paying a price for carbon emissions


Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 19, 2013 at 4:29 p.m.

Earth Day is approaching, so let's enter the realm of environmental fantasy.

Let's pretend there's any chance that Congress will take action on climate change in the foreseeable future.

If that magically happened, a carbon tax makes sense as the best option.

We're already paying a price for the damage to the environment and public health caused by power plants and other pollution sources. A price on carbon dioxide emissions accounts for those costs while encouraging energy efficiency and cleaner energy production.

Some lawmakers have proposed using revenue from such a tax to reduce the deficit or help low-income consumers pay higher utility bills. But given the fact that Republicans are allergic to new taxes and government programs, a revenue-neutral carbon tax has emerged as an alternative supported by some conservatives.

In a column published this month in the Wall Street Journal, former Secretary of State George Shultz and University of Chicago economics professor Gary Becker backed such a tax.

They propose returning all of the revenue to taxpayers in the form of a “carbon dividend” distributed like income tax refunds or Social Security benefits. They pitch the idea as leveling the playing field between green and dirty energy producers, also proposing to eliminate all government energy subsidies.

Predictably, the pragmatic idea was met with overheated rhetoric in the conservative media. “Are Republicans Really That Stupid?” screamed the headline from one Forbes contributor, who unleashed stale arguments denying the reality of climate change.

There really is no substantial disagreement in the scientific community about this issue: Of the nearly 33,700 authors of peer-reviewed climate change papers, only 34 reject the idea that it's caused by humans. Jim Powell, a member of the National Science Board for 12 years, conducted the study of papers published from 1991 to 2012.

The Daily Caller reported that a carbon tax has other conservative backers such as former South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis and Mitt Romney's former economic adviser, Gregory Mankiw. But the heads of conservative think tanks have joined the American Energy Alliance to oppose such a tax.

“A carbon tax is a penalty on American families, however popular it might be among the so-called clean energy elites who labor in the cottage industry of bad ideas on both coasts,” Ben Cole, a spokesman for the alliance, told the Daily Caller.

Ugh. There's nothing quite as depressing as a flack for a group financed by the billionaire Koch Brothers playing the populist card.

A Senate vote last month showed the long odds of Congress passing such a tax, as the Los Angeles Times reported. An amendment proposed to the fiscal 2014 budget called for a carbon tax that would be returned to the public in the form of deficit reduction, reduced tax rates or other direct benefits.

The Senate rejected the measure 58-41, with 13 Democrats joining all 45 of the chamber's Republicans in voting against it.

So as you mark Earth Day on Monday, maybe all the green tidings will make you forget that Congress refuses to address the biggest environmental issue out there.

But sooner or later we must wake up to the idea that by avoiding a price on carbon, we'll all be paying the price later.

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