Rampell: Inslee, others ignoring best carbon-fighting tool

Those presidential candidates with climate policies avoid the most-effective method: a carbon tax.

By Catherine Rampell

The Washington Post

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has a big, bold, multitrillion-dollar plan for addressing climate change. So does her rival Joe Biden. Likewise former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. And, of course, Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Washington, whose entire campaign is structured around the climate crisis.

These candidates, to their credit, have offered thoughtful solutions for addressing the most pressing policy challenge of our time. Their proposals are highly detailed and thorough, often running to dozens of pages in length.

And it’s precisely because they’re so detailed and thorough that it’s so bizarre none of them explicitly mentions the obvious, no-brainer tool for curbing carbon emissions: putting a price on carbon.

A carbon tax (or its cousin, a cap-and-trade system) is almost universally embraced by economists on both the left and the right. With good reason, too. Taxing carbon means pricing in, upfront, the implicit costs that come from using fossil fuels; especially, though not exclusively, the cost of warming our planet.

This approach has two main benefits.

The first is that it immediately nudges consumers and businesses away from purchasing carbon-intensive products, because (duh) those products get more expensive.

The second is that, over the longer run, it motivates entrepreneurs and investors to develop new green technologies, because they know they can make money as customers seek out cheaper, lower-carbon-footprint alternatives. Capital organically moves to wherever scientists and investors actually believe the most promising technologies lie, which might be ones that haven’t even been invented yet.

“Pollution pricing policies bring out great American ingenuity,” says University of Illinois economist Don Fullerton.

That’s in stark contrast to a more top-down approach, in which the government requires or subsidizes the use of specific clean technologies. These kinds of mandates can distort demand toward technologies that were promising yesterday but will be bested by other (cheaper, more efficient) technologies tomorrow; or they might just benefit the producers that have the most persuasive lobbyists and valuable voting blocs (for example: ethanol).

To be clear, the candidates’ proposals include many other good ideas. They all say we should eliminate subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. They all boost federal investment in and incentives for R&D in clean technology. This is critically necessary, especially for basic research, which private companies might not be sufficiently incentivized to undertake on their own.

But then things go off the rails.

The plans devote a lot of verbiage to talking about the magical properties of government procurement; that is, using the deep pockets of the government to purchase more energy-efficient products. Warren, for instance, analogizes her own plan, which includes a $1.5 trillion federal procurement commitment, to the industrial policy America previously undertook for the space race and our mobilization against Nazi aggression.

But in both of those historical comparisons, “The goal wasn’t to create a commercial product,” points out David Popp, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in environmental economics. “The government was the consumer.”

Just because the public sector buys more energy-efficient lightbulbs, electric cars or solar panels doesn’t mean the (much larger) private sector will, absent price incentives. Especially if we add conditions to the production of those green goods that actually increase their costs to consumers, as some of these plans do.

Warren requires that any green technologies that come out of her taxpayer-financed R&D be manufactured in America, even if they can be made more efficiently elsewhere. But other green technologies have achieved lower costs and more widespread adoption precisely because of the relatively free movement of ideas, people and production, as University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Gregory F. Nemet notes in his new book, “How Solar Energy Became Cheap.”

So why is a carbon tax MIA in these big, splashy plans that somehow found room for so many tangential provisions?

Presumably, one reason is that raising taxes is unpopular, as Inslee learned the hard way when he unsuccessfully backed a carbon tax in Washington state. Especially if that tax appears regressive, though it needn’t be.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that these candidates (and the many supporters of the well-intended Green New Deal) are trying to solve multiple social problems with the same blunt policy instrument. But by mashing two separate problems together, we become less effective — or in any event, slower — at solving either.

We get only one crack at curbing climate change. If we truly believe it’s an existential crisis, that means we don’t have the luxury of abandoning the most effective policy tool available for solving it; or piggybacking a bunch of other social objectives onto the solution.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @crampell.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, July 3

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Junelle Lewis, right, daughter Tamara Grigsby and son Jayden Hill sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Monroe’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Happy Independence Days, America

Linked by history and promise, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July should be celebrated together.

Comment: America’s 250th offers opportunity to look forward

The bicentennial in 1976 focused on America’s history. We can use the ‘semiquin’ in 2026 to look ahead.

Downtown Everett perfect location for Sorticulture

I was at Sorticulture this year and what a great turnout (“Sorticulture,… Continue reading

No way to treat Lady Justice

Dear Lady Justice, your blindfold seems to be slipping down. Sir, my… Continue reading

Saunders: U.S. policy luring people to risky border crossing

Providing amnesty to those who have previously crossed illegally will only lead to more deaths.

FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2016 file photo, a man fishes for salmon in the Snake River above the Lower Granite Dam in Washington state. Three Republican U.S. House members from Washington state are criticizing Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., for opposing their legislation that would prevent the breaching of four dams on the Snake River to help improve endangered salmon runs. (Jesse Tinsley /The Spokesman-Review via AP, File)
Editorial: Waiting could force bad choice on dams, salmon

Work should begin now to begin replacing what four dams on the Snake River provide.

Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school's football field. After losing his coaching job for refusing to stop kneeling in prayer with players and spectators on the field immediately after football games, Kennedy will take his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 25, 2022, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying at midfield after games. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Editorial: Court majority weakens church, state separation

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision does more to hurt religious liberty than protect a coach’s prayer.

A pregnant protester is pictured with a message on her shirt in support of abortion rights during a march, Friday, June 24, 2022, in Seattle. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion has cleared the way for states to impose bans and restrictions on abortion — and will set off a series of legal battles. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Editorial: Court’s decision a subtraction from our rights

Using a cherry-picked history, it limits the rights of women and will extend the reach of poverty.

Most Read