We Need to Put a Price on Carbon

(Photo: Smokestack via Shutterstock)(Photo: Smokestack via Shutterstock)

Soon world leaders will meet in Paris to try and put together a plan to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a big occasion, and given the state of the planet these days, a deal is absolutely necessary. At the rate we’re going, the earth’s atmosphere is set rise 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, double what scientists say is an “acceptable” level of warming.

And here’s the thing: Even that 2 degree Celsius benchmark of “acceptable warming” might be not be enough to hold off environmental devastation on a scale we haven’t seen in millenia.

According to former NASA scientist James Hansen, 2 degrees Celsisus is a recipe for disaster, no matter what public officials say. He explained why in a recent interview with Australian radio. Hansen now says we have to limit ourselves to 1 degree Celsius warming – a number we’re already dangerously close to reaching.

So a lot is at stake at this year’s climate talks, which makes the fact there won’t be any discussion of carbon pricing all the more frustrating.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

In fact, earlier this week, Christina Figueres, the head of the UN body in charge of the Paris talks, explicitly ruled out that possibility saying that it just wasn’t possible at this moment in time. Now, that may or may not be true, but in terms of pure policy, there’s no question that putting a price on carbon is the single best way to clamp down on greenhouse gas pollution and stop global warming once and for all.

Right now, the fossil fuel industry is the only industry in the world that doesn’t have to pay to clean up its own waste. Instead, these guys pass the costs of that waste (carbon pollution) on to the rest of us in the form of what economists call “negative externalities.” Some examples of “negative externalities” include things like the cost of cleaning up from climate-change-driven severe weather events, the cost of pollution-related health problems and the cost to local economies of fishing grounds being devastated by ocean acidification.

Because the fossil fuel fat-cats like Exxon and the Kochs just pass the costs of these externalities on for you and me to pay the bill (while getting an estimated $5.3 trillion in subsidies every year), the fossil fuel industry is artificially profitable and artificially competitive. This creates a vicious cycle in which the fossil fuel industry has absolutely zero incentive to change its ways because doing so would cut into its profits margins.

Putting a price on carbon, however, would flip the script.

Forcing the fossil fuel industry to pay for even a small percentage of the damage it does to our planet would, in turn, give it an incentive to keep carbon in the ground. Emissions would go down and everyone would be better off.

This isn’t some wild-eyed theory, either. We’ve seen carbon pricing work wonders right here in the US.

Since 2011, the nine-state cap-and-trade system that covers Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states has cut carbon emissions by 15 percent and saved consumers $460 million off their electric bills.

It’s the most under-reported story in the US, and it just goes to show how easy it is to solve the global warming problem if we would only get our act together, push back against the climate misinformation funded by the Kochs and ExxonMobil and do the things we know we need to do to save the climate.

Oh, and just for the record, cap-and-trade systems are just one way we can put a price on carbon.

Another method is the carbon tax, which would actually be easier to implement than a cap-and-trade scheme and less likely to get hijacked by lobbyists. It would also be just as effective.

Even a small $10-per-ton national carbon tax would cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 28 percent of 2005 levels, save tens of thousands of lives and jump-start the renewable energy industry by finally putting it on an equal playing field with Big Oil, Big Gas and Big Coal.

This isn’t complicated. It’s just common sense, and if world leaders at December’s climate talks really want to come up with a plan to save the planet, they’d get serious about putting a price on carbon.