Rumblings of a Carbon Tax
How do we measure the true cost of carbon pollution? The answer has stumped scientists, lawmakers, economists, and religious leaders alike for decades. We can measure the cost of making increasingly acidifying waters potable. We can measure the rising cost of basic food staples, whose prices have skyrocketed in the last decade. We can measure the rise in cost of treating water-borne diseases, which are spreading to more places due to warmer temperatures.
And how should we respond to carbon pollution? We can deny, as the U.S. largely does now, that carbon plays a significant role in altering our climate and continue to heavily subsidize fossil fuel industries. Or we can put a price on carbon itself. Recently, there have been rumblings about a series of casual conversations taking place in bipartisan policy circles discussing the feasibility of a carbon tax. A broad coalition of climate and energy advocates were hosted by the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. earlier this month to brainstorm putting forth a carbon tax proposal during Congress’ “lame-duck session” -- the last two months of 2012. A lame-duck session occurs when one Congress meets after its successor is elected, but before the new session begins. It is typically viewed as a period when Congress can be extremely productive (with the elections over, jobs are no longer on the line) or extremely dull, maintaining the strictly divided status quo. A carbon tax would fix the cost of emissions by adding a pre-determined tax to each unit of high-carbon energy produced, to compensate for the environmental and health costs of greenhouse gas emissions. Under a carbon tax system, the price of emissions is fixed and energy producers and consumers decide how much carbon they are willing to pay to emit. In 2009, the URJ passed a resolution on climate change and energy calling for the U.S. to levy a carbon tax as one potential policy mechanism to address the climate crisis. However, proponents of a carbon tax have not been able to galvanize support for such a system since Congress refused to pass comprehensive climate change legislation in 2010. But as word of the meetings tricked up to lawmakers, some have disavowed the idea of a carbon tax moving anywhere in the 112th Congress, even during the lame duck session. Many politicians are hesitant to raise taxes on businesses, even if those taxes would help reduce the growing federal deficit and help combat climate change. Others, like former Representative Bob Inglis (R-SC), support such a proposal, saying it would provide a platform for “conservative efforts” to address climate change and the deficit. Climate change has been spun as a partisan issue on Capitol Hill – but people of any and all party affiliations have already felt the impacts of carbon pollution and rising average temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency said in a report released on Monday that 55% of the contiguous U.S. was under “moderate to extreme drought” in June, making it the most severe and far-reaching drought in over half a century. And this week our media has been filled with alarming reports of the melting ice sheet in Greenland. Under the carbon tax system, we could pave the way to a more sustainable future by recognizing that the true price of carbon goes far beyond what we currently pay for it. It would generate revenue for public infrastructure improvements by avoiding taxing incomes. Such a tax would also help encourage transitioning to a clean energy economy by making renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power more attractive, as they are still considered expensive by fossil fuels’ highly-subsidized standards. We hope that the narrow window of opportunity to take up a carbon tax widens as these conversations continue.