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In defense of a carbon tax

Just before Thanksgiving, Grist political blogger David Roberts posted a sharp challenge to carbon-tax advocates, contending that we were, in effect, ascribing “magical” properties to carbon taxes. Roberts spelled out 10 drawbacks to carbon taxes, with this bottom line: Any carbon tax legislation that could make it through Congress would likely be feeble and regressive, and perhaps even counterproductive.

David is arguably the green community’s most astute blogger, particularly on environmental politics. His qualms about pushing for a U.S. carbon tax deserve to be taken seriously.

Read David's original post. Here's our point-by-point response. Let us know what you think.


Thank you, David, for elucidating your reservations about placing a carbon tax at the heart of U.S. climate policy.

Until now, your many Grist posts critiquing carbon taxes have focused on political infeasibility. Now you've presented your policy objections. Thanks for bringing your concerns out into the open.

No surprise: The Carbon Tax Center indeed views a U.S. carbon tax as the sine qua non of effective climate policy -- provided it builds toward a substantial price that rises steadily and predictably over time. With a ramped-up tax, the initial carbon charge can be modest, giving businesses and families time to adapt, while still broadcasting a clear price signal to begin shifting millions of decisions toward less energy and emissions -- big decisions that determine design of vehicles and transport and that set the pace and nature of investment in low- and non-carbon energy; as well as the full gamut of household-level decisions, many of which can’t and won’t be touched without a carbon tax. Almost as importantly, a robust carbon tax changes the culture by broadening the definition of pollution and valorizing conserving behaviors with monetary rewards.

Here are our counterpoints to your 10 points.

1. A carbon tax is conservative and progressive.

We don’t think of a carbon tax as a market mechanism; there’s no need to create a new market. It’s a price mechanism. Call it a market corrective if you wish, but the term “market” is both a misnomer and a turnoff for carbon tax adherents (actual and potential) who don’t identify with market ideology.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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What’s the matter with elasticities? (Answer: maybe nothing)

Price-elasticities -- dimensionless parameters that express the extent to which a price increase triggers a usage decrease -- are central to policies that aim to reduce a harmful activity by internalizing its damage into its price. The efficacy of carbon fees, congestion tolls, cigarette taxes, and the like turns on the proposition that the toll or tax will dampen consumption by more than a token amount. If the price-elasticity is close to zero, then the fee devolves to a revenue-raiser that will never fulfill the purpose of reducing the harm. But if there's at least a modicum of underlying price-responsiveness, …

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It keeps going and going and going

If efficiency hasn't cut energy use, then what?

One of the most penetrating critiques of energy-efficiency dogma you'll ever read is in this week's New Yorker (yes, the New Yorker). "The efficiency dilemma," by David Owen, has this provocative subtitle: "If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?" Owen's answer is a resounding, iconoclastic, and probably correct Yes. Owen's thesis is that as a society becomes more energy efficient, it becomes downright inefficient not to use more. The pursuit of efficiency is smart for individuals and businesses but a dead end for energy and climate policy. This idea isn't wholly original. It's known as …

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Bloggers, heal thyselves

Defending lifestyle changes: who's delusional on saving energy?

Yikes. Just the other day I was trying to get across to my teenage sons precisely why we were hanging the wash on the line instead of firing up the clothes dryer. You know: trade fossil fuels for sunlight, save money, avoid emissions -- not to mention, get outdoors. But today two New York Times blogs, Green and Dot Earth, are flogging a new study that chides energy-conserving Americans for succumbing to a set of "myths" prioritizing behavioral changes over efficiency upgrades. One supposed myth is that line-drying saves more energy than washing the clothes in cooler water. Huh? Avoiding …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Dr. Gore, Medicine Man?

Gore’s climate remedy must match diagnosis

Al Gore's eminence in the global climate movement is on impressive display in his full-throated defense of climate science in Sunday's New York Times. His essay, "We Can't Wish Away Climate Change," is triple the paper's standard length for op-eds. Only Gore could command such a bully pulpit, and probably no one else could so powerfully restore the sense of urgency that has seeped out of climate policy over the past year. In Gore's essay, the triple debacles of Climategate, Copenhagen, and Congress fall into perspective, and the moral high ground is regained for a renewed U.S. legislative effort to …

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Memo to North Dakota

To unlock wind power, put a price on carbon

A stone marker in Rugby, N.D. identifies the town as the "Geographic Center of the North American Continent." No marker identifies the state as one of America's top two or three in wind-power potential. Yet North Dakota's vast expanses and steady winds endow it with the capacity to generate more than half as much electricity as all 50 states currently produce from all sources combined, according to a recent Harvard study of U.S. wind energy potential. Indeed, that potential, equivalent to 2.6 trillion kilowatt-hours annually, is almost 100 times greater than the current output of the state's coal- and lignite-fired …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Wanted: Cloudsplitter

Waxman-Markey: ‘80% less by 2050’ is too hard, let’s do 46%

I've read humongous books in my time, most memorably Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks' magisterial cinderblock-sized novel of John Brown, the anti-slavery warrior whose "Bloody Kansas" campaign in the 1850s helped provoke the Civil War. The similarly supersized Waxman-Markey bill couldn't be more different - not just in genre, but in attitude. Where Brown gave his life to abolish slavery, the "American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009" seems intent on postponing Americans' day of reckoning with climate-damaging fossil fuels. In a bid to pick up support from coal state Democrats, Waxman and Markey this week pruned their cap-and-trade "20% by …

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Stand By Me

BC voters back carbon tax

Carbon emissions pricing met its first big electoral test this week, as British Columbia voters rewarded BC premier Gordon Campbell, who last July instituted North America's first major carbon tax, with a third four-year term. News service AFP reported that with more than 60 percent of the votes counted, Campbell's Liberal Party held a 46-42 lead over the opposition New Democratic Party, whose leader, Carole James, denounced the carbon tax throughout the two-month campaign and promised to replace it with a cap-and-trade scheme. Elections aren't referenda, as I hastened to note when the Liberals were routed in Canada's national election …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Give Fees A Chance

Pollution taxes work

The Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp threw down the gauntlet to carbon taxers in the Wall Street Journal last month: Environmental taxes have worked well to raise revenue, but without a cap they inevitably become a license to pollute in unlimited amounts. No air pollution problem has ever been solved except by imposing a legal limit on emissions. (emphasis added) This is a little like the Pope complaining that sex isn't enough fun: how would he know? Pollution taxes have seldom been tried. But in the few cases where they've been tried, they've worked rather well. One example is from …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Unchain Chu

Energy boss Steven Chu misses his bike

I'm a fierce carbon tax advocate, as Grist readers know. But what most upset me about the interview with Stephen Chu in last Sunday's New York Times magazine wasn't the energy secretary's disavowal of an Obama carbon tax: Q: Many environmentalists believe that a permanent carbon tax would be the most efficient means of spurring carbon-reducing technologies. A: Well, we're not talking about a carbon tax. President Obama and I are not talking about a carbon tax. Chu (center) with cycling colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.We all know Secretary Chu has to toe the party line, which, for …