Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Future Faces Us

Here are two not just inconvenient but inescapable facts: For the foreseeable future, dealing with the effects of global heating will take up an ever-increasing proportion of human attention and resources. These are the effects of causes in the past.  But in terms of causing more havoc in the future: if human civilization and most of the larger animal species now on this planet are to have any future beyond this century, the spewing of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will have to slow significantly and then pretty quickly stop.

Scientists once settled on a rise in 2 degrees C as the upper limit, not for any damaging change, but for survivable change.  If the planet goes on as it has, we will blow by that and double it to 4C by the end of the century.  At which point this will likely become another planet, with few if any humans on it by, say, 2200.

There is much that can be done with energy efficiency and the already robust course of developing clean energy.  But most observers believe that to have any chance, the use of carbon must be discouraged through some financial mechanism that will raise its price.

Cap and trade is one such system.  The state of California is currently getting a cap and trade program up and running, so far successfully.  But the last national attempt was rejected by Congress.

  Another is a tax on carbon.  Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker wrote persuasively that the carbon tax is attracting support among conservatives as well as others---including fossil fuel behemoths:

"Perhaps because a carbon tax makes so much sense—researchers at M.I.T. recently described it as a possible “win-win-win” response to several of the country’s most pressing problems—economists on both ends of the political spectrum have championed it. Liberals like Robert Frank, of Cornell, and Paul Krugman, of Princeton, support the idea, as do conservatives like Gary Becker, at the University of Chicago, and Greg Mankiw, of Harvard. (Mankiw, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush and as an adviser to Mitt Romney, is the founding member of what he calls the Pigou Club.) A few weeks ago, more than a hundred major corporations, including Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever, issued a joint statement calling on lawmakers around the globe to impose a “clear, transparent and unambiguous price on carbon emissions,” which, while not an explicit endorsement of a carbon tax, certainly comes close. Even ExxonMobil, once a leading sponsor of climate-change denial, has expressed support for a carbon tax. “A well-designed carbon tax could play a significant role in addressing the challenge of rising emissions,” a spokeswoman for the company said recently in an e-mail to Bloomberg News."

A carbon tax makes the price of carbon-based energy higher, which discourages carbon-based energy and encourages the development and use of clean alternatives. It makes financial sense, not only in reducing carbon in the air but in revenue available to help the efforts to deal with the effects of global heating already in the cards, due to the time lag between cause and effect.  At first that might just be to lessen budget deficits, but even that strengthens the ability to respond when needed.

There's another wrinkle to these systems, called "cap and dividend" or in the tax system "fee and dividend."  In the most recent formulation of fee and dividend, introduced as a bill in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, a fee is imposed on the 3,000 largest carbon polluters, and most of the money collected is paid out to American citizens to help defray their higher energy costs, with some of the rest going to weatherization and other energy efficiency programs.  And the money is substantial: $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

Any mechanism that helps slash carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions begins to pay off immediately by lessening bad health effects of air and water pollution, but it may well help lessen climate effects even within this century, according to a new study.  Though it's no escape clause:  this relatively conservative study suggests it forestalls 20% to 65% of the bad effects.  The greater payoff is if it forestalls runaway climate apocalypse thereafter.

The dimensions and onrushing effects of climate change already underway are beginning to sink in, as in this weekend's USA Today story that signals a commitment to cover climate more systematically.  We are still at the very beginning of understanding its role internationally, as in the turmoil of the Arab Spring.  

According to chaos theory, small changes may lead to very big changes, and very big changes are required.  Sure, another kind of chaos grips politics these days but even though nobody now would bet much that the U.S. Congress is going to pass a carbon tax any time soon, it's still worth talking through the idea and setting the table.  The congressional elections of 2014 loom larger all the time.

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