29 october 2018

Time is right for a carbon tax to fight climate change

Editorial, Post and Courier, October 29, 2018

There are some hopeful signs that Congress may finally get around to enacting a carbon tax sometime in the next two years. Sooner would be better than later.

The idea of a tax that would encourage people and industries to reduce their dependence on carbon fuels — oil, gas, coal — has been around for decades without receiving much support in Congress.

But recent developments strongly suggest that it should move higher on the congressional agenda next year and be adopted by the Trump administration. That would be a positive step in the necessary effort to slow the rate of climate change.

For example, both recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics, William Nordhaus of Yale and Paul Romer of New York University, have endorsed a carbon tax as a good way to address climate change. Their endorsements coincide with a report from the International Panel on Climate Change raising new alarms about potential environmental damage from rising amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced by burning carbon fuels.

A number of major energy companies, including Exxon, have also endorsed a recent proposal for a carbon tax coupled with a rebate plan, an idea that has gained support from an impressive bipartisan list of sponsors and some environmentalists.

Some conservative supporters want to funnel any revenue from a carbon tax back to the American public through a dividend that could total as much as $2,000 per household. Certainly, that would help soften the blow of increased energy costs.

But carbon tax money might be better put to use funding costly but needed resiliency improvements like the estimated $2 billion in flood prevention and mitigation measures Charleston officials say the city needs to fend off higher sea levels and stronger storms.

Advocates and critics of the carbon tax plan should be given every chance to air their views to Congress. But the precedent of using government taxes to discourage harmful activity, and the potential risks of allowing greenhouse gases to flow unchecked into the atmosphere indefinitely, are well established.

In the absence of public support for higher taxes, the Obama administration used regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency to address carbon’s role in climate change through a Clean Power Plan to phase out coal-fired electricity generation and through new regulations on automotive emissions.

The Trump administration is trying to roll back some of these regulations, claiming they are too costly. That’s a dubious argument given the astronomical costs climate change is already imposing through natural disasters.

But Mr. Trump makes a good point that regulations are an unnecessarily heavy-handed way to achieve a shift away from fossil fuels. A carbon tax would offer more flexibility for businesses and individuals to make the changes that work for them.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has shown precious little urgency in addressing the very real challenges posed by climate change. He should rethink that stance.

And sensible Republican and Democratic lawmakers who care about maintaining both a functioning, prosperous economy and a healthy, livable planet should work together to come up with a carbon tax plan that protects both.

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