Where to Start on Climate Change? Carbon Tax

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), May 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Where to Start on Climate Change? Carbon Tax


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Harvey Ginsburg

The conclusions of the National Climate Assessment released May 6 are far-reaching, specific and represent sound peer-reviewed science. The unmistakable trend of climate change is taking us to a warmer world. The report underscored that a world even 2 degrees warmer will mean greatly diminished biological diversity and livability. A world in which climate refugees and political instability will be common. In which hunger, violence and disease will increasingly be experienced by people around the world.

That difficult scenario represents a future which must be resisted and met with strong action. To respond effectively, we must first understand a major cause of climate change.

Human-caused global warming is an ecological disaster largely caused by an economic distortion. That distortion is an unduly low price for fossil fuels. To correct it, most economists recommend a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

When we hear the phrase "carbon tax," our first thought is that the price of gas is already too high. But we need to think about externalized costs. Consider the example of cigarettes, which for many years had a price that mainly represented the cost of growing, processing and marketing tobacco. As the health impacts of tobacco consumption became known, federal and state governments began to levy higher taxes to reflect the actual costs to state and federal governments, and to individual health care consumers. We were already paying those externalized costs, but it took government action before they were reflected in the price of cigarettes.

Similarly, the price of fossil fuels today does not reflect the costs incurred when those fuels are consumed. Although no specific weather event can be conclusively linked to climate change, the growing frequency and intensity of violent weather is unmistakable. The $65 billion in losses inflicted by Hurricane Sandy and $35 billion by the 2012 Midwest drought were but the beginning. Include the costs incurred due to raging storms, acidifying and rising oceans, and droughts. Add the additional cost of higher food costs, as well as the growing cost in Oregon of fighting forest fires.

All those costs are real. We are paying them now, but since they are not reflected in the price of fossil fuel the market isn't able to determine solutions. Individuals and entire industries are making decisions based on faulty information that doesn't take into account the true costs of an essential commodity. …

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