Can Carbon Taxes Help Cool Our Ever-Warming Planet?

Via Lynn Hasselberger
on Jul 24, 2012
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Should the U.S. pass a carbon tax? Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, sure thinks so.

His op-ed piece (below), “Winning the Carbon Tax Debate,” provides a solid argument.

I’m with him. Even if you don’t believe in man-made climate change, you can’t deny that a carbon tax would help reduce carbon emissions. And lowered carbon emissions will help keep our air and water clean and safe.—and less serious, but surprising—conservatives and Republicans are beginning to suggest that a tax on carbon might be on the table next year as part of comprehensive tax reform. Carbon taxes fit conservative tax theory: they hit consumption, not savings or investments; are market-perfecting, instead of distorting; and are easy to collect.

So it might be a real chance. That makes this a learning moment for the climate movement. Can we remember that carbon taxes are a tool, not a panacea, a step towards low carbon economics and not its essence, and a part of a political strategy, not a magic elixir that substitutes for strategy?

Or, as we did with cap and trade, will we invest this modest opportunity with pixie dust-like qualities that obscure the unavoidable trade-offs and risks?

A carbon tax—even a modest one—would be progress.

It would generate revenues, and if climate advocates can bring power to the negotiating table, those revenues in part might be devoted to other aspects of energy innovation, like paying for renewable power incentives.

It would send a market signal to investors—meaningful in the electricity sector, where a $20 per ton levy means a significant $0.02 advantage for renewable over coal power. But $20 per ton is a trivial $0.20 on a gallon of gasoline or diesel, certainly not enough to move investor or consumer behavior. This is one reason why you can also make a case for an additional levy on oil, higher perhaps on imports, to provide a real incentive for efficient, electric or bio-fuelled vehicle purchasers.

It would put in place one important piece of an eventual, global, harmonized carbon fee, as economist Jeffrey Sachs has proposed—the best idea thus far for eventually sending the bill for climate disruption and repair to those who properly owe it: fossil fuel consumers.

But like any pricing mechanism on carbon, a tax doesn’t resolve the myriad advantages which lock-in fossil fuel wastage, ranging from distribution monopolies for oil companies to lender indifference when approving mortgages—the stuff that constitutes the left-hand, already profitable side, of the McKinsey carbon abatement cost curves.

The increased cost of jet fuel as oil rose from $40 to $100 per barrel amounted to an effective tax of $150 per ton on carbon. Studies by Brighter Planet show that a typical airline, using the same planes and fuels, can cut their fuel bills and carbon emissions at least by a third through operational and routing reforms. But the long-run up in jet fuel prices produced virtually zero in the way of such changes. Fuel price is easy to exaggerate as a force for reform. Institutional inertia, sunk costs, split incentives and infrastructure lock-in are far more important in the energy sector than economists concede—or would like us to recognize.

It would also be an important symbol.

A statement that yes, the threat of climate disruption is real, that carbon is harmful and not beneficial, and that something will need to be done. It’s symbolic importance is probably the biggest barrier to having it happen—the hard-right has come out swinging at the notion of some kind of deal being cut around a carbon tax, with denialist central, the Heartland Institute, proclaiming: “Carbon dioxide is not a negative externality, it is a measure of energy use…the source of prosperity, innovation, and opportunity. The emerging consensus of scientists and economists is that CO2’s effects are either too small to be noticeable or will produce net benefits, not harms.”

But while symbolic victories score very highly in the hot-house of the policy world, they have less long-term impact on the public than we tend to think. Few Americans, for example, could even tell you that every month they pay a tax on their telephone bill to guarantee universal access for all Americans—even though that tax is prominently listed on their phone bill.

So the biggest danger for the climate movement in a carbon tax debate is that we will let the symbolism trump the substance, and instead of bringing power to the negotiating table to insist on a tax package that moves us forwards closer to a low-carbon future, we will roll-over as we did on cap-and-trade and say “any carbon tax means our support for a tax package.”

It’s the strategy we craft and the negotiating power we wield that will make the carbon tax debate a meaningful step forward—or a serious setback—in our quest to cool our warming world.

Should the United States pass a carbon tax? Let us know your thoughts for, against, indifferent in comments.

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About Lynn Hasselberger

Lynn Hasselberger is co-founder of GDGD Radio; The Green Divas Managing Editor; and Producer of The Green Divas Radio Show. She's also a mom, writer and award-winning cat-herder who lives in Chicagoland. Sunrises, running, yoga, lead-free chocolate and comedy are just a few of her fave things. In her rare moments of spare time, she blogs at and A treehugger and social media addict, you'll most likely find Lynn on twitter (@LynnHasselbrgr @GreenDivaLynn & @myEARTH360), instagram and facebook. She hopes to make the world a better place, have more fun, re-develop her math skills and overcome her fear of public speaking. Like her writing? Subscribe to her posts.


15 Responses to “Can Carbon Taxes Help Cool Our Ever-Warming Planet?”

  1. CoCreatr says:

    Yes, in a way. Here why some believe it is necessary.

  2. Fantastic article by Bill McKibben. Thanks for sharing it here.

  3. Mamaste says:

    Just intro'd on FB to Work & Enlightened.

  4. Mark Ledbetter says:

    "Let us know your thoughts…"

    Ok, I'll bite. Without knowing the details, I'll provisionally say I'm for it.

    A carbon tax should offset by a tiny bit the distortions in energy use introduced into our society by crony capitalism (a much different animal, btw, than free market capitalism). A century ago, progressive ideologues out to free us from the "evil clutches of railroad capitalism" allied with car and rubber companies to make Carworld national policy, destroying in the process America's incredible but mostly private mass transit system, the energy efficient system of interurbans (what we now call light rail). And then, of course, the whole world followed our lead. "Free" infrastructure for cars is now government policy everywhere.

    Without a feedback loop (assumed by computer programs but as yet undiscovered) carbon in the atmosphere does not have the capacity to account for more than a small part of our recent global warming. Chances are, then, most of the warming is a natural cycle. (Hey Lynn, don't call me a denier! Too many evil echoes in that word and plenty of science that justifies doubt. I'm a doubter or skeptic, not a denier.) The bigger problem to pumping carbon into the atmosphere may be one touched on in the McKibben article: rising acidity levels in the ocean.

    Warming and ocean acidity aside, Carworld destroys both nature and human scale communities. As a stopgap measure to be used until that unlikely day when government gives up its support of a world rebuilt for the smooth running of the auto, I'm willing to support a carbon tax.

  5. Great article, totally what I was looking for.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Mark. You made some great points and I agree the carbon tax could have many benefits regardless of where one stands on climate change.

    I don't recall calling you (or the readers) a denier. I said: "Even if you don’t believe in man-made climate change, you can’t deny that a carbon tax would help reduce carbon emissions. And lowered carbon emissions will help keep our air and water clean and safe." As far as carbon in the atmosphere, the science as I understand it: Carbon dioxide and other gases warm the surface of the planet naturally by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere—a good thing because it keeps our planet habitable. However, by burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil and clearing forests we humans have dramatically increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere and temperatures are rising.

    Here's some great information about the carbon in our atmosphere (from, founded by Bill McKibben):

    Since the beginning of human civilization up until about 200 years ago, our atmosphere contained about 275 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Now, the planet has about 392 parts per million CO2 – and this number is rising by about 2 parts per million every year.

    Some of the world's leading climate scientists have now revised the highest safe level of CO2 to 350 parts per million. It's the safety zone for planet earth. As James Hansen of America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the first scientist to warn about global warming more than two decades ago, wrote: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

    Nonetheless, I remain open minded about the subject. That said, I can't help but lean toward the theory held by the majority of climate scientists around the world.

    Would you be interested in submitting a post for elephant about the feedback loop (or lack thereof) and the other reasons you remain skeptical about man's impact on climate change? The submit a story button is at the top of the page. Thanks again Mark! Cheers, Lynn

  7. Thanks, Mamaste! Cheers, Lynn

  8. Thanks for taking the time to read, Jordan. Cheers, Lynn

  9. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Many apologies on the denier thing, Lynn. As for the info you put up, there's no "denying" any of that. The problem with the info is this: even that great increase in carbon is not enough to account for more than a small part of the warming. So computer models assume there must be some feedback loop somewhere that multiplies the effects of the carbon increase. But the loop hasn't been found. Therefore, it is not at all unreasonable to suspect that the greater part of the warming is due to natural cycles rather than carbon. Especially since computer models that assume a feedback loop also predict easily measurable side effects in the atmosphere that simply aren't happening.

    This way of looking at things is the minority position among climate scientists. The fact that it's a minority position is worrying. But I have never seen a real rebuttal to it so maybe, just maybe, it is right.

    I am interested in truth, so if anyone knows a legitimate counter argument to the feedback loop problem I would certainly like to hear it. It would be terrible news, of course, since, if the computer models are right, the die is basically cast, the game is up. We're in for it no matter what we do. But it's nice to know that the majority position (to the best of my knowledge) has some major holes in it.

    In any case, I'm all for low carbon transportation systems that preserve both nature and human-scale communities, so I'm with you on the carbon tax. Leastways, so long as government is in bed with the car industry.

  10. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Lynn, just saw the bit about submitting an article. Don't know how I missed it the first time. I'd really like to see a professional non-ideological article on that and also a non-ideological counter argument, if there are any. Hope you can find somebody capable of it. Sadly, I'm not the man for the job. You need someone who actually knows what he/she is talking about, not someone like myself who just likes to talk. Have a good day! And hope things cool off for you a bit over there in N. America. Here in Tokyo we've finally just barely hit low summer temps after a long cool spell. Fingers crossed it means the American heat is only a local phenomenon.

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