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Let’s Tax Carbon

It’s the worst form of energy policy, except for all those others that have been tried

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By IRWIN STELZER
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Having lived through and survived Richard Nixon’s promise of energy independence, Jimmy Carter’s effort to substitute a hair shirt and a woolly sweater for a thermostat set at comfortable levels, George W. Bush’s insistence that Americans surrender their incandescent light bulbs, other presidents’ support for subsidies for ethanol and nuclear power, and the current administration’s plan to substitute subsidized wind and sun for fossil fuels, I thought I had seen it all—every technique imaginable for interfering with free markets and consumer choice. I was wrong.

A windy day in Scotland

A windy day in Scotland

Stuart McMahan

Now we have the Third National Climate Assessment, making the case for further intervention by our government, and every other government for that matter, in the energy markets. The assessment comes in at a thumping 829 pages, succinctly summarized in a 137-page “Highlights” section, and concludes that the globe is warming—and freezing; we are experiencing more severe droughts—and floods; our forests, many of them “within urban areas,” are being destroyed; our winter storms are more severe; “Native Peoples’ access to traditional foods and adequate water” is threatened. If you experience weather of any sort, an experience hard to avoid, it is sure to change. You are experiencing climate change. It’s happening “right now,” not in some far-off future, says the president.

There’s no mention of slaying of the first born, lest the authors be accused of plagiarizing from the Passover Haggadah’s nasty plagues (bugs, hail, locusts, et al.) visited by God on the Egyptians who mistreated the Israelites. But that’s all that’s left out of the parade of horribles.

Supporters of both the 300 experts and 60-member federal advisory committee that produced the assessment like to claim that the science is “settled,” which commentator Charles Krauthammer has pointed out science never can be (witness Copernicus, Galileo, and Einstein, among other unsettlers of “settled” issues). Anyone who questions the models and conclusions of what the president calls “the 97 percent of scientists” (I think he meant to say “97 percent of reporters”) is a “denier,” a disgusting echo of the term usually reserved for the anti-Semites who deny the Holocaust. Although the assessment refers to evidence that “tells an unambiguous story” of climate disaster and disrupted lives, it concedes, “There has been no universal trend in the overall extent of drought in the continental U.S. since 1900 .  .  . [and] trends in severe storms, including the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds, are uncertain and are being studied intensely,” a conclusion essential lest the continued flow of grant money to the assessors and advisers dry up along with large sections of the country. 

Fortunately, there is little prospect that the call to arms will be heard: Polls show that climate change is low on Americans’ list of worries. But that does not mean the assessment will prove harmless, for it lays the basis for a more complete takeover of energy industries by a president who knows how to deploy the regulatory process to impose his vision on the country, to “transform” it, as he promised even before winning his first presidential election.

The president is fortunate in his opposition, which specializes in doing just that—opposing—but only that. Republicans and many of their conservative allies quite rightly question the science underlying the claims of the president but offer no alternatives to his call for more and more regulations on the production and consumption of energy. One is available, and should not be hastily rejected: a carbon tax. 

Conservatives can maintain their skepticism about global climate change, but that does not mean that a bit of prudential action might not be appropriate should it turn out that carbon emissions are indeed having a negative effect on climate. A carbon tax would allow for rebating a portion of the regressive payroll taxes that are job-killers, while further reducing our still-heavy dependence on oil imported from countries that don’t like us, and providing a market-based substitute for costly subsidies and regulations that are piece-by-piece turning the energy sector over to government control. They say that in politics you can’t beat something with nothing, which is what Republicans and conservatives have been doing when it comes to energy policy. 

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