EDITORIAL: Learn to love a carbon tax

TALK ABOUT CRACKPOT IDEAS. Try convincing the public that a new tax is the best way to solve a problem that some wealthy interests won’t even acknowledge. It must be the heat; it affects certain people more than others. Why else would a sane person speak out in favor of taxes, unless it’s a tax on somebody else?

There were crackpots in Philadelphia 238 years ago, too. They wrote a nasty letter to the king, calling George III a tyrant “… For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” among other failings. Their Declaration of Independence established the principle that we citizens of the United States could tax ourselves without any outside help. We’ve been doing it regularly ever since.

Worthy causes convince voters to support new taxes. Think of school budgets and libraries, which ask the electorate to voluntarily tax themselves. When voters determine a request is reasonable, they’ll vote Yes even if they’re shaking their heads in disbelief as they do it. Our votes are endorsements of the social contract, which requires that we pay for essential services in an orderly way. But what if the tax is intended to diminish a threat rather than supply a service? That’s what makes global warming different.

A local group has formed a Columbia County Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), a small but growing national movement advocating a national carbon tax. CCL’s goal is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities–mostly by burning fossil fuels–so we can slow the rate at which our atmosphere is warming. The concept here is that a carbon tax is the most effective way to reach this goal. It would charge the biggest producers of fossil fuels a fee for every ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) their fuels will create.

CCL expects producers will automatically pass the cost of this fee down the supply chain to consumers. So the other half of the carbon tax equation is that all the fees collected would be paid back to consumers in the form of a carbon tax reimbursement. Each year the carbon tax rate would increase and so would the reimbursement unless producers like oil and coal companies invest in sources of energy that don’t contribute to a warmer and less hospitable climate. In other words, a carbon tax would give energy producers an economic incentive to clean up their act, and the reimbursement would protect consumers from getting hammered by the costs of reforming the energy industry.

That’s the theory. There’s more about this approach online at citizensclimatelobby.org, where CCL addresses problems like what to do about foreign competitors who wouldn’t have to pay the tax. But for all the work that has gone into this concept, gaps remain and some folks will dismiss it as impractical or nutty. They’ll have a harder time dismissing former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson Jr., who served under President George W. Bush. The Bush administration had many friends in the fossil fuel industry.

In a piece in The New York Times last month Mr. Paulson endorsed a carbon tax, though not the specifics of the CCL plan. Other high-profile former government officials from both major parties have joined the chorus warning us that we don’t have a lot of time to dither over methods. We are poisoning ourselves and our future with our failure to cut the vast quantities of CO2 pollution we unleash all day every day.

New York state residents who remember assurances that all proceeds from the state lottery would fund education have reason to react skeptically to CCL’s promise that all the carbon tax revenue will go to the public. And anybody who assumes the federal government can manage a huge new carbon tax program without a new bureaucracy is naive about government and the scope of the challenge.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to a tax that slows climate change is how voters punish candidates who hint that they’ll support any tax increase. You can bet that candidates who dare to endorse a carbon tax will be slimed this fall with endless 30-second spots by their opponents and fossil fuel interests.

Regardless of whether CCL has exactly the right formula for averting catastrophe, these neighbors of ours and their colleagues around the nation are using the democratic process to press for solutions that just might work. They’re trying to preserve our way of life and the lives of generations to come. Until someone has a better idea we owe them our support.

Comments are closed.