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In an era of climate urgency, we need a carbon tax

Michael Stravato/New York Times/File

This month, the elements and the experts both delivered an urgent message about climate change: We’re already feeling the effects — and they will only get worse if we don’t act.

Last week Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle, with winds topping 155 miles per hour, leaving a trail of devastation. The storm’s sudden and powerful escalation in the 24 hours before it made landfall — an intensification catalyzed by warmer-than-normal ocean water — is the kind of dynamic scientists have long warned will be a climate-change consequence. We saw the same rapid intensification with Hurricane Maria in September of last year.


The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meanwhile, just released a new report saying that the world has about a decade left if it’s to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. And that doing so will require a dramatic energy-use transformation. After that window closes, the world will be on path toward greater warming — and even a half-degree increase beyond that level will have dramatic consequences, bringing on periods of extreme heat, increasing extreme weather events, worsening droughts and floods, and seriously stressing water supplies.

Just two years ago, the world seemed poised to take significant action to combat climate change. Then came Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, promised to bring back the US coal industry, and announced he will take the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. The formal withdrawal, however, can’t commence until November of 2020, which is to say, after the next presidential campaign. That timeline should assure that climate change will be an important issue in the 2020 election.

As world policy makers cast about for solutions, one that is winning increasing attention is a steadily increasingly tax on carbon dioxide emissions, centered on fossil fuels. Details would need to be worked out, but the tax would likely be levied on refiners, or at the point of entry into the country. The IPCC report says that “a price on carbon is central to prompt mitigation.”


Under some proposals, the carbon-tax revenue would be rebated to consumers. A tax would provide an economic incentive to switch to greener power while also spurring innovation. Such a plan is being pushed by former Republican secretaries of state James Baker and George Shultz, former Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen, and former Clinton Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, among other notables. At least three Nobel Prize winners in economics have also endorsed the idea. There’s solid support for such a plan among the public at large.

But if GOP statesmen from the Reagan era are taking a providential view, the same isn’t true with today’s Washington Republicans. Wan early hopes that the Trump White House might sign on to such a plan have faded with the departure of Gary Cohn as the president’s chief economic adviser. True to form, a guarded President Trump expressed skepticism about the new IPCC report.

Further, House Republicans are opposed or dubious, with a few notable exceptions. (Prominent among those exceptions is US Representative Carlos Curbelo, who represents the vulnerable southern tip of Florida, and is a carbon-tax proponent.) Their opposition highlights how far national Republicans have wandered from science and rationality since John McCain ran for president in 2008 calling for a carbon-emissions cap-and-trade system to battle global warming.


Voters must come to come to grips with the fact that the nation’s current governing party has stuck its head in the sand with regard to climate change — and seems determined to keep it there in the face of both real-world effects and increasingly dire scientific warnings.

They should be demanding action, regularly and repeatedly, from today’s officeholders, as well as carbon-tax commitments from House and Senate candidates.

“The opportunity is still there, but every day that goes by without making progress is time wasted,” notes Charles Komanoff, director of the Carbon Tax Center.

And as the IPCC just warned, there is less and less time to waste.