carbon tax

This past weekend, about 500 people gathered at Wesleyan College in Middletown, Conn., for the Pricing Carbon Conference. But most of the participants weren’t excited about pricing carbon via cap-and-trade; they were all about carbon taxes.

During a debate about whether to implement a cap-and-trade policy or a carbon tax, Dan Lashof of NRDC, proponent of a cap (though an awfully mild proponent: “So I’m supposed to be here as a die-hard believer in cap-and-trade …”), had but one or two lone supporters in the large audience.

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The conference was a virtual who’s who of carbon-tax supporters. Four members of the U.S. House spoke — Reps. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), John Larson (D-Conn.), and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). So did author and activist Bill McKibben, climate scientist James Hansen, Carbon Tax Center founder Charles Komanoff, and EPA lawyers and cap-and-trade rebels Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel.

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It felt like a gathering of greens who don’t fit within the confines of mainstream environmentalism. Absent were big green groups like the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

A major question over the weekend was how radical the carbon-tax movement should become. Panelist and activist Tim DeChristopher declared that we must “overthrow the corporate power structure.”  An audience member asked, “Do we even want to have a military in a sustainable world?” On the other side, panelists Bill Shireman of The Future 500 and outgoing GOP Rep. Inglis each stressed the importance of gaining business support and framing a tax in terms of how much profit companies will gain by “going green.”

The conference fell far short in terms of addressing the political obstacles that have been blocking climate legislation. Virtually absent was talk about Senate obstructionism, the inane and perpetual use of the filibuster, and the possibility of passing legislation through reconciliation, issues that David Roberts has covered at length (and with good reason). Many conference participants may see such issues as being outside their realm of expertise, preferring instead to talk about how methane affects ozone which then contributes to … zzzz. Yet even the three congressmen who headed a panel on “Politics and Other Realities” avoided mention of the Senate, focusing on micro-issues like gas stamps and impossibilities like “bringing America together” instead of ways legislation could feasibly get passed by a supermajority in the upper chamber of Congress. When I asked about the structural problems in the Senate, McDermott admitted it was an issue and then launched into talking about America being “addicted to oil.” Luckily, McDermott has three Priuses, so oil addiction isn’t much of an issue for him.

The conference also fell short in terms of diversity. The attendees were overwhelming young, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly liberal, and, IMHO, overwhelmingly upper-middle-class. When one man mentioned “the elephant in the room,” referring to global population issues, another stood up and said, “I thought he was talking about me. I think I’m the only Republican here.” Gaining a broader base would undoubtedly help not just the carbon-tax movement, but all environmentalists.

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Despite its weaknesses, the conference brought together a fantastic group of public-minded citizens and activists to thoughtfully discuss where to take the movement from here.

Cap-and-trade isn’t the only game in town, they stressed. Not if they have anything to do with it.