It is time to tax carbon. Washington state must apply this simple, fair, and effective solution to the problem of carbon pollution.
Some threats call for careful examination, deliberation, and a measured response. “Global warming” once was one of these — in 1975. Intervening years of accelerating carbon emissions have nourished the twin monster threats to our society that they cause: what we now call “climate change” and “ocean acidification.” Decades of inaction in the face of these building perils have used up all of our comfort time. We now face the daunting challenge of immediately stopping further change to our atmospheric chemistry while simultaneously adapting to an increasingly hostile and unfamiliar climate.
Recent west coast climate news testifies to this. Gov. Jerry Brown just declared a California state drought emergency, following a year which brought less rain than any other in the state’s 119-year weather records. California has already seen 406 wildfires through January 25th, almost six times the state’s average. California’s snowpack is frighteningly low. Some relief is forecast this week, but Sierra-Nevada snow levels are currently only 12 percent of average. Oregon’s snowpack is also thin, only 20 percent to 40 percent of normal. Even the Evergreen State is experiencing an unusually dry winter, with mountain snowpack only 50 percent to 70 percent of normal for this time of the year.
We should rely on climate scientists and statisticians to determine the extent to which our drought represent man-made climate hostility or mere natural variability. But these professionals, backed by reams of data and peer-reviewed studies, have weighed in decisively on the hazards of carbon pollution. Dr. James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, wrote in 2012: “the deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change.” The evidence is overwhelming, and strengthening, that excess atmospheric carbon dioxide will bring higher average planetary temperatures, more extreme weather such as floods and droughts, devastating heat waves, more fires, rising sea levels, and stronger hurricanes. Meanwhile, there is little disagreement that oceanic absorption of excess carbon dioxide is steadily acidifying those waters, dissolving building blocks of the food chain on which society has thrived.
Fortunately, we have a solution to the pollution. Economists tell us that to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we have only to tax them. Our economy spews emissions because it’s free to pollute! The money we pay for gasoline covers the cost to make and transport it, plus profit. Nobody pays the cost of cleaning up the carbon pollution produced when we burn fossil fuels, although we certainly suffer consequences. In economic terms, it’s a classic market failure. Gradually instituting a revenue-neutral carbon tax will correct this distortion, reorienting our creative economy toward getting the carbon out. Such a tax need not increase net revenue to governments; it could reduce state sales taxes and replace the B&O tax. Our friends in British Columbia already implemented such a system. According to The Economist, it’s proved effective at reducing carbon emissions without holding back their economy. A carbon tax is a simple, fair, and (among economists) widely agreed-upon solution.
It’s senseless that we have an effective, market-based solution to two gigantic problems but aren’t implementing it. The state’s Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup (CLEW) failed to agree last month on recommendations to meet our state’s already-too-tepid pollution limit targets. CLEW members Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42nd district) and Rep. Shelly Short (R-7th district) seemed to object to the very goal of state emission targets, writing that meeting them “would do nothing to mitigate global climate variability.” This shockingly inaccurate statement demonstrates zero acknowledgement of our ability to make a difference through leadership in reducing climate change and ocean acidification. It abrogates a responsibility to leave the world at least as habitable as we found it, and as such, constitutes legislative malpractice. Our state is an international leader in technology and innovation. A carbon tax would make us an international leader in smart, ethical government policies as well.
Bob Hallahan is a retired Navy Commander with an MA in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College. He lives on Whidbey Island.