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Support for climate-change action from an unlikely source

Scientists say climate change is producing more severe storms and raising sea levels, putting more human settlements in danger. Photo credit: The Risky Business Project

Scientists say climate change is producing more severe storms and raising sea levels, putting more human settlements in danger. Photo credit: The Risky Business Project

Cross-posted from Planet NYC

Some prominent Republicans are raising an alarm bell over global warming. And for a change, they are saying the threat is serious and humans largely responsible for it.

On Saturday former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. compared the lack of action on climate change to the nation’s failure to address financial issues that led to the 2009 stock-market collapse. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, Paulson provided a glimpse at a climate change report released this week by a bipartisan panel that includes Republican former Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State George Schultz.

Paulson, who served under President George W. Bush, called for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions – the leading greenhouse gas. He described the tax as “a fundamentally conservative” approach. Paulson’s description is probably an attempt to sweeten this bitter medicine for fellow Republicans, many of whom consider any tax increase anathema. In contrast, many environmentalists have backed a carbon tax for decades.

What makes a carbon tax so effective is that it forces consumers and businesses to automatically consider the damaging environmental effects of carbon dioxide in each economic transaction. A carbon tax bakes this into a process that people use every day: deciding if a price is reasonable in comparison to the expected benefits.

While taxing carbon-dioxide emissions may seem liberal to some, it works by tapping into a fundamental of the market system, the laws of supply and demand. In this case, it’s the idea that demand for a product drops as its price increases. Higher prices for climate-disrupting carbon fuels also make clean fuels such as wind and solar power more attractive economically.

For average folks, a carbon tax means they may decide to walk or bicycle instead of taking the car for some trips, or to buy a more fuel-efficient car, or to live in an area better served by transit – in order to reduce energy costs. Among the decisions businesses would be forced to consider: whether it makes sense economically to use a polluting fuel or switch to a cleaner energy, and even whether to locate operations in cities and compact suburbs to attract employees who would want to walk, bike or use transit to get to work – instead of setting up shop in auto-dependant hinterlands.

Taxing things that are damaging to us is not exactly a revolutionary concept; alcohol and tobacco carry higher taxes than other products. In fact, higher cigarette taxes are often cited as a major reason why smokers quit.

It’s not clear how much influence this new push on climate change will have on the Republican Party as a whole. The Republicans speaking out on the issue are moderates in an increasingly conservative party. Still it’s hypothetically possible that this effort might bear fruit, if enough moderate Republicans team up with Democrats.  As with the case of Nixon going to China, it may take Republican action on climate change to get us on the right track. Of course, it would have been better in both cases, had Republicans not previously whipped up public opposition to relations with China and action on climate-change.


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