With the new IPCC report finally out in the world, climate activists can again focus on action. What do we do now?

I say, first let’s cut through the defeatism that’s posing as realism, as in this article in yesterday’s L.A. Times, “Game over on global warming?“:

Everybody in the United States could switch from cars to bicycles.

The Chinese could close all their factories.

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Europe could give up electricity and return to the age of the lantern.

But all those steps together would not come close to stopping global warming.

Really? I ran the numbers and came up with a 17-18% reduction in global CO2 emissions (4.3% from zapping U.S. cars, 7.7% for closing Chinese factories, 5.6% for converting European electricity to wind).

Hasn’t the Times heard of harm reduction? Every percentage drop in emissions will translate into some mitigation in sea level rises, violent storms, and other harms from global warming.

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No less vexing, for this writer, was Robert Reich’s blog reaction to the IPCC report. The former Clinton Secretary of Labor hadn’t even finished his lead paragraph when he threw in the towel: “You can forget a carbon tax any time soon.”

C’mon, Bob. Don’t mourn, organize. Surrendering just when a political critical mass is assembling to attack carbon emissions is, well, un-American. A carbon tax is essential, and the work of coaxing the public and pressuring policymakers has to start now. There’s just no alternative.

Reich advocates a temporary windfall profits tax on oil companies to finance R&D in non-fossil based fuels. But what’s holding back renewables isn’t a lack of know-how, but the lack of a valuation of climate damage in the prices of fossil fuels. Reich’s windfall tax might have meant something in the Clinton years. Now it would be a hollow, ineffectual gesture.

The Big Green groups have a different answer. Their flirtation with carbon cap-and-trade systems has turned into a torrid love affair. NRDC and Environmental Defense have teamed with ten giant industrial corporations, including GE, Alcoa, and PG&E, to push carbon cap-and-trade legislation through Congress.

What’s wrong with that? A lot.

  • Cap-and-trade won’t diminish the price volatility that discourages investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy (whereas a carbon tax will lend predictability to energy prices).
  • The workings of cap-and-trade systems are extraordinarily complex and will take years to iron out and start up (carbon taxes could be implemented much sooner).
  • The costs of cap-and-trade systems are likely to become a hidden, regressive tax as dollars flow to market participants (carbon tax revenues can be returned to the public through rebates or progressive tax-shifting).

What Big Green likes about cap-and-trade is that it disguises the costs. But that is precisely what’s wrong with it.

A carbon tax brings the cost of climate change to bear on every individual buying decision we millions make. Which is why, with Dan Rosenblum, an environmental lawyer and a good friend, I launched the Carbon Tax Center last month.

America is finally ready for an honest discussion of carbon taxing. Dan and I formed CTC to advance this discussion and provide intellectual and practical support to help carbon tax proponents grow into an irresistible civic force.

We are mindful of the obstacles to changing U.S. tax policy. (Our insistence on revenue-neutral and progressive tax-shifting is partly a response to this difficulty, though it is also rooted in our commitment to economic justice.) We’ve worked in both government and the public-interest sector, and we know how hard it can be to effect change.

But we also know that there’s no surer way to lose than giving up before the fight has begun.

So we say to you, Grist reader, eco-citizen: visit our website and join the carbon tax movement. You have nothing to lose but … well, actually, you have nothing to lose at all. And you have a world to win — or rather, to win back.