Climate Crusader

The carbon tax: A near silver bullet for turning back climate change.
Photo by Morgan Maassen

By Alex Matthiessen

Apple recently released a new ad with iPhone video footage of mountains, bees and beaches that was so beautiful I thought it was produced by an environmental group. The voiceover, relying on the words of astronomer Carl Sagan, is an appeal to viewers to save the planet that pierced and fluttered my heart: “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life….There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species can migrate,” Sagan intones. “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the only home we’ve ever known.”

Until quite recently, climate change was just an abstraction for most Americans. Yes, many of us are aware that 15 of the 16 warmest years on record occurred in this century, with each of the past three years setting new temperature records. Yet most of us can’t readily pinpoint the apparent 1.6 (Fahrenheit) degree increase in average global temperatures in our day-to-day lives. That’s changing, though, with the latest tsunami of bad news: Sea ice, which used to cover most of the Arctic Circle throughout the year, now disappears almost entirely each summer. An ice sheet the size of Delaware is poised to break off of Antarctica within a matter of weeks, further raising global sea levels. A huge portion of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site, is dead, killed off last year from a spike in water temperatures.

It’s easy, and absolutely justified, to blame our delay in confronting the climate crisis on the leaders of the fossil fuel sector, and the lobbyists, think tanks and ad men who back them. These malefactors have spent decades perpetuating a tobacco industry-like campaign to confuse the public about the realities of climate change and obfuscate the need for action. But what about the rest of us? Are we merely victims of this avaricious cabal? Not exactly. Save those who live off the grid, we are all complicit, both by consuming fossil fuels and by not demanding that our leaders expedite the switch to a clean-energy economy.

The good news is we can choose instead to push the economic and policy levers needed to precipitate that switch. That means committing ourselves to energy efficient and low- or zero-carbon lifestyles. And it means joining the movement to secure a national, and ultimately glob-al, carbon tax to expedite the transition to a clean power economy—and do it fast enough to stay below a 2-degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures that climate scientists agree is the tipping point for irreversible, catastrophic changes to the planet’s ability to sustain human life. To be sure, we are slowly making that transition already. You can see it in the growing number of electric vehicles and solar panels on the East End, the blossoming of wind farms in the Atlantic, and in efforts by cities like New York to make its buildings more energy efficient.

Photo by Morgan Maassen

The problem is that none of these changes are happening nearly fast or broadly enough to stay below the 2-degree C threshold. To do so, we have to vastly accelerate our progress to a near-zero carbon economy. Many economists, “liberal” and “conservative,” agree that charging fossil fuels for their carbon emissions is the fastest way to get there, and that the most efficient way to do it is with a national carbon tax. The best plan is one recently proposed by the Republican-led Climate Leadership Council.

Here’s a simplified version of how it works: An initial fee of $40 per ton would be placed on carbon dioxide emissions at the point of entry into the U.S. economy—i.e., at the refinery, mine, well or port. The cost—which would rise each year by, say, $5 per ton—would be passed along through intermediaries in production and processing, ultimately showing up at the point of sale for consumers. Thus, the retail price of our fossil fuel based energy—gas, home heating oil, electricity and even the cost of petroleum-based consumer goods—would go up, compelling most American consumers and businesses to shift to more efficient and low-carbon products in order to save money.

Politically, the most important feature of this “fee and dividend” proposal is that 100 percent of the billions of dollars in annual revenue generated by the carbon tax would be returned to the American consumer in the form of dividend checks issued to households, every quarter of every year in perpetuity—or at least until we’re no longer using enough carbon to bother taxing. The vast majority of low- and middle-income households would receive more in dividends than they pay in additional fuel costs.

A number of other countries and provinces already have instituted some form of carbon pricing. Moreover, citizens in Massachusetts, Washington and other states are hard at work trying to get their legislatures to adopt carbon taxes, as an intermediate step toward a national program. The specter of climate change is overwhelming, even for us environmentalists accustomed to spending our days thinking about the myriad ways we are damaging the planet. But don’t think for a minute that you are powerless to do something. Make the pledge to go green in all your buying habits, and start talking up—at dinner parties, via social media and with elected officials—the power of a carbon tax. The planet’s future depends on it—and on you.

Environmentalist Alex Matthiessen, who was born and raised in Sagaponack and lives part-time in Sag Harbor, is president of Blue Marble Project, an eco-strategic consulting firm, and board chair of the Carbon Tax Center, both based in New York City.