Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Fierce Urgency" of Climate Crisis compels Carbon Tax

Effective climate policy finally got a hearing on Capitol Hill last week.

The "fierce urgency" of the climate crisis compels effective action, warned Rep. John Larson (D-CT) at Thursday’s House Ways and Means Committee’s packed hearing on climate change revenue measures. Hurricane Ike’s devastation of coastal Texas imparted deeper meaning to Martin Luther King’s phrase. Witnesses pointed to storm-related damage as one of many ways in which failure to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming will destroy ecosystems and economies alike.

New York Mayor Bloomberg kicked off a day of testimony calling for revenue-neutral carbon tax as the most effective and transparent way to "use capitalism" to create the incentives for everyone to reduce fossil fuel use and for development and implementation of low-carbon alternatives.

Earlier in the week, a panel of politically-diverse economists recommended distributing revenue from either a cap-and-trade auction or a carbon tax to individuals rather than doling out the funds (or equivalent in pollution permits) to energy firms.

The focus on effective policy rather than the tired refrain of denial and delay felt refreshing, even inspiring. Expert panels discussed potentially effective measures like a carbon tax with a direct dividend; the discussion has moved beyond clumsy and ineffectual cap-and-trade measures that have dominated for years and which have produced no greenhouse gas reductions in Europe.

The deniers and delayers got their appearance; Heritage Foundation's David Kreutzer asserted that nothing the U.S. could do would matter and that climate legislation is too costly. Maybe that's progress; industry shills seem to have moved from denying the climate crisis to quibbling about the cost. (Gargantuan storms like Katrina and Ike are hard to ignore so they're changing the subject to money.)

The conservative / industry line on global warming closely tracks their half-century old script on smoking and lung cancer. No surprise, it's the same crowd. Their game plan:

1) Deny. "Smoking doesn't cause cancer." ("Global warming is a hoax.")

2) Generate controversy: "You can't prove smoking causes lung cancer." ("You can't prove global warming is real.")

3) Blame the victim. "It's your fault, there are warnings on the label — why did you start? You could have quit." ("It's your fault, you're addicted to oil, you should be "energy independent".)

4) Assert that it's impossibile to do anything. "Banning or restricting smoking wouldn't matter, people would smoke anyway." ("Pricing or regulating greenhouse gas emissions and developing alternatives won't matter, the Chinese and Indians will burn coal anyway.")

5) Argue cost-benefit; assert that it's too expensive to do anything. "Tobacco is very profitable. Regulation costs more than our profits and would put poor tobacco farmers out of business. ("Fossil fuels are necessary for economic growth, serious action to reduce their use would destroy our economy and hurt poor people.")

6) Bankruptcy. (Coming attractions.) "We're bankrupt and can't pay for the harm we've caused." (Bankruptcy is depolyed only after executives and the savvy "insider" shareholders have taken their money out of the company or out of the country. It's standard strategy in Superfund cases -- the polluters delay while they move their assests, then leave taxpayers stuck with the cleanup bills.)

Science will prevail, but climate change grows exponentially and irreversibly, so if industry shills like Heritage can stall for a few more years, it will be too late to save much of civilization or Earth's biodiversity.

Socrates said "There is no evil but ignorance." Heritage is doing its best to keep us in the dark. The Committee gave them their say, but maybe their script is finally wearing out.

It's not a question of whether the U.S. acts alone, it's whether the world's largest economy takes the lead in pricing carbon emissions. As Dr. Frank Ackerman of the Stockholm Environment Institute put it, “If the U.S. leads, the world will follow, but if we don’t, the worst consequences” can be expected.

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