Dancing around the carbon tax in the United States Senate

Climate and climate policy are more than moderately complicated issues, as we all are well aware. But at the end of the day we know too there are a certain number of basic underlying truths that shape these issues and outcomes, which one either grasps or one does not. And in this regard, there can be little doubt that the most single powerful single lever available for slowing down climate damage is carbon-reduction — and by far the most powerful way to achieve this is through a well-fashioned carbon tax. You put a price on carbon emissions, a high price preferably, and you can be sure that they will come down. Economics 101. But say this to a hundred bright people, and 99 will immediately, without losing a beat, look you in the eye and start to list all the reasons why this cannot be done. Wrong! It can be done.

And when it comes to our bailiwick here on World Streets, namely sustainable transport and sustainable cities, what we get with these carbon reductions are many of the things we need to do anyway to move toward these broader goals. Higher fossil fuel prices work to reduce motorized traffic. That’s a pretty good start because less traffic on our roads means less environment damage, reduced pressures on scarce natural resources, fewer traffic fatalities, quieter and safer cities, improved public health, economic renewal, stronger communities and world peace. But once we have that carbon tax in place, we then need to use all our ingenuity and efforts to ensure social equity, protect the economy and create better and fairer mobility systems for all. Which of course is what World Streets is all about. Now let’s hear what Charles Komanoff of New York City has to say about how the US Senate is facing up to these challenges.

Cap-and-trade, let us hope, is dead. And now, we may begin!

- by Charles Komanoff

And now, ve may begin?

Readers of a certain age, and a certain literary bent, will recognize the words of Alexander Portnoy’s psychiatrist, spoken at the close of Philip Roth’s transgressive 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.

After lo these many years, they popped into my head today as I read that Senate Democrats had finally thrown in the towel on an energy bill that would have included a partial cap-and-trade provision for limiting carbon emissions from power plants. The bill, written by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, was touted by Washington insiders and some major environmental groups as this year’s last hope for federal climate legislation. Yet it would have relied on carbon offsets and other dodges to postpone the day of reckoning with true, visible carbon emissions pricing — the cornerstone of meaningful climate policy.

Instead, reported the New York Times, Senate Democrats will pursue a limited bill aimed at increasing oversight of oil drilling and tightening energy efficiency standards — with no direct assault on climate-destabilizing CO2. (For a later Times story amplifying the first, click here.)

Yes, now, we may begin — “we” being Americans who care about climate, sustainability, and Earth — to unite around a climate approach that is effective, equitable and transparent enough to win the support of our fellow citizens and a Congressional majority.

I’m referring of course to the idea advanced by climatologist Jim Hansen as fee-and-dividend and by the Carbon Tax Center as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, by which fossil fuel extractors and importers pay the U.S. Treasury fees pegged to the carbon content of the coal, oil and gas they take from the ground or bring into U.S. ports, and the Treasury distributes the revenues to all Americans via equal monthly dividends (“green checks”), or by tax-shifting from regressive taxes such as payroll taxes.

The Senate’s antipathy to even the partial cap-and-trade proposed by Sen. Kerry will doubtless be spun as indicating that for the foreseeable future the well for climate legislation has been poisoned. The Carbon Tax Center says that the opposite may be true: with cap-and-trade out of the way at last, the political well can begin to be de-toxified so that the effective, equitable and transparent carbon fee-and-dividend can be seriously considered.

For this to happen, however, the Big Green groups like EDF and NRDC that for years have dominated climate discourse among environmentalists, and that convinced Congressional Democrats and the White House that the only way to “put a price on carbon” in America was via carbon cap-and-trade, will have to abandon that approach and allow others, and themselves, to try a fresh start.

It will be said that cap-and-trade failed because Fox News and other climate deniers branded it as “cap-and-tax” and, therefore, a carbon tax (or fee) cannot possibly succeed. And it is true that carbon cap-and-trade was looked to, years ago, as a way to build on the success of acid rain cap-and-trade, win over Republican free-marketers, and put a price on carbon without having to parade the dreaded t-a-x word before the public.

In the event, though, carbon cap-and-trade did none of these things.

Instead, Big Green’s pursuit of carbon cap-and-trade tethered the climate movement to complex financial instruments and branded us as servants of Wall Street elites. It opened the legislative floodgates to off-the-charts Beltway deal-making that rightly repulsed the public. Perhaps most importantly, the co-optation of climate advocacy by the cap-and-traders robbed us of the high moral ground we might have shared with abolitionists, suffragists, labor agitators and civil rights workers — true American heroes who fought to liberate our society of oppression and injustice.

If you’re in the climate movement, you recognize that fossil fuels’ assault on Earth’s climate is an ultimate form of oppression and injustice: of rich against poor, of the profligate against the frugal, of the present against the future. Ending this assault will require concerted action on many fronts; and it starts by internalizing the climate-damage costs of coal, oil and gas into their prices, so that the free ride for fossil fuels is ended and all of the alternatives, from energy efficiency, renewable energy and low-carbon fuels to conservation-based behavior and mindfulness toward energy consumption, may compete fairly and effectively.

Political action to accomplish this must be done in bright sunlight, not in Beltway shadows.

Cap-and-trade, let us hope, is dead. And now, we may begin!

# # #

About the author:

Charles Komanoff “re-founded” NYC’s bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives in the 1980s, helped found the Tri-State Transportation Campaign in the 1990s, and co-founded the Carbon Tax Center in 2007. Charles’s writings include books, articles, and landmark reports such as Subsidies for Traffic, Killed By Automobile, and the Kheel Report on financing free transit in New York City. A math-and-economics graduate of Harvard, Charles lives with his wife and two sons in lower Manhattan.

A first round of comments are available on this piece were published on the 22nd and can be accessed here.

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2 responses to “Dancing around the carbon tax in the United States Senate

  1. “The Nation” editors liked my “Portnoy” blog marking the latest failure of federal cap-and-trade legislation, and asked me for a longer, more expository piece exploring the implications. It went up on their site Wed. eve, as “Senate Climate Bill Dies — Does the Environment Win?” http://www.thenation.com/article/38000/senate-climate-bill-dies%E2%80%94does-environment-win

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