Last week, I took part in a debate at Salon.com on the merits of pricing carbon (and related matters). My debate opponent was Steve Everley, manager of policy research at American Solutions and a contributing author to To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, by Newt Gingrich. Salon has graciously agreed to let us republish the debate here. There will be four installments.

You can read Monday’s exchange here; Tuesday’s here. Day three consisted of several rapid-fire back-and-forths, which I kicked off.

David Roberts: I found your answer on climate change somewhat unsatisfying. You accurately note that it’s a heavy political lift, most voters don’t prioritize it, and it’s easier to push for action on other grounds. You go on to ask, “Why would I bother to discuss global warming?” I can think of one reason: It’s happening! It’s not a poll, it’s a real thing in the world.

We’re on track to hit 11 gigatonnes of annual global carbon emissions by 2020, if not earlier. If we average that much or more over the coming century, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 could reach 1,000 ppm within our grandchildren’s lifetime. The consequences would be cataclysmic and irreversible. The operative question is not whether we can avoid climate change. It is doing damage today, and more is already baked into the system. The question is whether we can head off the worst of it.

Put aside our ideological and policy disagreements for a moment. A simple question, to which I ask the courtesy of a simple answer: Do you accept the conclusions of mainstream climate science as described most recently by the National Academy of Sciences?

Steve Everley: While I disagree with the premise, namely that we can “put aside our ideological and policy disagreements” to discuss global warming (it has become somewhat of a religion for the left, which is perhaps why I now must confess my faith), I will honor your request: I do accept that the climate is changing.

We could have a debate about how much, the intensity of impacts, or a suite of other questions related to what studies we accept or reject, but it would be a distraction. The issue before us is whether we impose a new job-killing energy tax to hamstring progress today so that in 90 years we might have a negligible impact on temperatures (EPA found cap-and-trade in the U.S. would reduce global temperatures only one-half of one degree C by 2100).

The last time we imposed a tax regime of this scale was when the Progressives convinced us we needed an income tax. Four years after the 16th Amendment, Congress raised the top rate from 7 percent to 67 percent, partially to pay for cost overruns in administering the tax itself. Would you have us believe that Congress will not use this new energy tax system to dramatically increase taxes and redistribute wealth over time as Congress does frequently with the income tax?

David Roberts: I won’t dwell on your evasive answer, since our time is short, but frankly it’s bizarre to call climate change a “distraction.” It’s the problem we’re trying to solve, isn’t it? If we can’t agree about the nature of the challenge, what criteria can we use to evaluate alternative solutions? It’s like arguing over diets with someone who won’t acknowledge the existence of obesity. Get serious: Either explain why every scientific institution in America is wrong about climate change or explain what you would do to address it.

As for the rest, well, I’m not going to argue over whether America should have an income tax. The 20th century happened; most people have made their peace with it. Your argument consists entirely in repeating the word “tax” as often as possible. Indeed, that seems to be all that’s left of the once-proud conservative intellectual tradition: knee-jerk demagoguery on taxes.

Two questions for you. First, given that carbon pollution imposes costs on society, why shouldn’t those costs be paid by polluters? Why should they receive a vast subsidy from the public?

Second, many conservatives, your boss included, want to offer “incentives” to all sorts of clean energy technologies (which is different, apparently, somehow, from “picking winners”). How should those incentives be paid for?

Steve Everley: If you think it’s evasive to call climate change “a distraction,” then your beef is with the likes of President Obama and Sen. John “it’s not a climate change bill” Kerry. It is they who are arguing that introducing a cap-and-trade energy tax system will create net new wealth and net new jobs.

The reason I emphasized “tax” is because we are discussing a tax. Your refusal to answer my question about future congressional abuse of this new tax system suggests you agree with my concern that Congress will use it to raise taxes.

Incentives aren’t the same thing as picking winners because, for example, prizes for a national goal (such as a 100 mpg car) allow everyone to innovate, regardless of industry or status. Cap-and-trade punishes one set of disfavored industries and transfers its wealth to government-favored industries. Your approach also assumes fossil fuel companies are somehow unable to innovate, so we must punish them into extinction. This is why President Obama wants to bankrupt the coal industry.

How to pay for such incentives? Royalties and tax receipts from expanded energy production, an approach routinely rejected by the left, despite its popular appeal.

 

The debate continues! Read day four.