The case for a tax on carbon emissions

The Drake coal-fired power plant in downtown Colorado Springs. Photo/Allen Best

The Drake coal-fired power plant in downtown Colorado Springs. Photo/Allen Best

Mountain towns should support a tax on greenhouse gas emissions

Time to take a stand on this issue

This was published in the June 26, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News, an e-zine distributed to subscribers.

by Allen Best

Hot and dry? Not in Colorado this year. Exactly the opposite. In Breckenridge last week, flowers overflowed the planters along Main Street. They were new, I was told, because the lingering cold had killed previous efforts at civic gaiety.

Evidence of global warming? No, but weather should not be confused with climate. We still have a major problem.

I was in Breckenridge to attend a meeting of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. CAST consists of municipalities in all the destination ski resorts, but it has expanded to include several counties and also a few towns with a slightly looser affiliation, including Estes Park and Grand Lake, the two gateway towns to Rocky Mountain National Park.

At the meeting, Ketchum, Idaho, and Whistler, B.C., were also approved for membership, joining Jackson, Wyo., and Park City, Utah, as non-Colorado ski towns. Nederland, located west of Boulder, near the Eldora ski area, also was voted in. As the business meeting was in the middle of libations, part of a social hour at the end of the Colorado Municipal League annual conference, this approval was granted with raised glasses and cheers.

Then it was my time to speak. I nearly begged off. Walking to the front, I thought to tell my joke and announce I’d return at a later meeting, before cocktail hour, to speak my piece.

My joke went over well, and so I laid out my pitch after all. CAST, I said, should consider an advocacy role on behalf of a national carbon tax.

Now, I’m glad that I was bold. By a few days, I preceded an op-ed in the New York Times by Henry Paulson, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs and then treasury secretary in the second term of George W. Bush.

About the same time, Rolling Stone published an essay by Al Gore, the former vice president, who also mentioned the need for a carbon tax.

And this week, a new report came out from a group that includes Paulson and George Shultz, the former cabinet secretary in the Nixon and Reagan administrations (and a regular speaker at the Vail Global Energy Forum). To make the politics interesting, the group called Risky Business Project also includes Tom Steyer, the retired but still billionaire founder of Farallon Capital Management and major Democratic Party donor. (He is scheduled to speak at the Aspen Renewable Energy Day conference in August.)

What they all said, and what I said in Breckenridge, is that this matter of greenhouse gases heating the atmosphere and warming the oceans can’t be kicked down the road.

My comments were grounded in personal experience: I had first started paying attention in 2003, while on assignment for a magazine called Ski Area Management. It served as a giant alarm in my consciousness. Then I explained that a carbon tax is needed because it fairly assigns a cost to atmospheric pollution that is now committed freely. If adopted, it will accelerate innovation in the private sector.

I added more, too, the moral imperative, recalling the civil rights activists of 50 years ago this summer, including the work of the Freedom Riders who went to Mississippi. I happened to know one of these former Freedom Riders lives in the Vail area.

Freedom Riders were the subject of a film shown recently at Mountainfilm in Telluride. One of those individuals, who I am guessing is now in her late 60s, spoke. She was, said Linda Halpern, scared from the time she got to Mississippi until the day she left.

Slow motion toward collision

On Sunday, Paulson argued the case for a carbon tax by using a mountain-town simile: “I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.” Those who oppose putting a price on emissions of greenhouse gases are right to consider the economic implications, he added. “But we must not lose sight of the profound economic risks of doing nothing.”

Paulson made a business case, and sought to appeal to the values of fiscal conservatives. “Viewing climate change in terms of risk assessment and risk management makes clear to me that taking a cautiously conservative stance—this is, waiting for more information before acting—is actually taking a very radical risk. We’ll never know enough to resolve all of the uncertainties. But we know enough to recognize that we must act now.”

Paulson went on to note that some Republicans “worry that pricing carbon is a ‘big government’ intervention. In fact, it will reduce the role of government, which, on our present course, increasingly will be called on to help communities and regions affected by climate-related disasters like floods, drought-related crop failure, and extreme weather like tornadoes, hurricanes and other violent storms. We’ll all be paying those costs. Not once, but many times over.”

In a column the next day titled “The Big Green Test,” also in the New York Times, Paul Krugman argued that an emissions tax is unlikely to get through Congress any time soon. That poses a question for conservatives such as Paulson, he said. Are they willing to accept second-best solutions, such as stepped-up fuel economy standards and subsidies for clean energy?

In his 7,100-word essay in Rolling Stone, Al Gore cited a list of evidence that he alleges confirms the effects of climate change. As usual, he pushes attribution beyond what I think science, with its inherent caution, supports. Colorado’s forest fires, California’s droughts, the hurricane that sacked New York City—all of them are because of greenhouse gas emissions.

From my research, that leapfrogs what is know about causality. I’m frequently reminded of what Susan Solomon, an atmospheric scientist who was a major figure in solving the ozone riddle in the 1980s, had to say at a presentation in Boulder, Colo., in 2004: The effects of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions will become most clear only in retrospect. In our current weather, it’s hard to pick out the effects from the wide historic range of variability. Droughts aren’t new, forest fires aren’t new, floods aren’t new.

But much of what Gore said does ring true—including his recognition of the need for participation in solutions by other nations, especially China and India. Paulson made the same point. “The key is cooperation between the United States and China—the two biggest economies, the two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and the two biggest consumers of energy.”

Many in ski towns already recognize this. The Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs sends a delegation frequently to China, recognizing that Wyoming and China are twins in their dependence on coal—and thus have to be partners in the solution.*

A Wyoming delegation visited an industrial site in  China recently. Photo/Olivia Miggs of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.

A Wyoming delegation visited an industrial site in China recently. Photo/Olivia Miggs of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.

Unlike Krugman, I’d like to think a carbon tax is more imminent. In March, I heard former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth, who staged the hearings in 1988 that drew national attention to the issue of climate change. He said that a carbon tax could be forthcoming more rapidly than you might think.

How will this happen? Krugman argues that like the Affordable Health Care Act, it might have to be forced through by Democrats. I think it needs to have bipartisan support. That has usually been the case with our major national policies, even Civil Rights. It would be nice if Republicans could drift back to the middle by drafting somebody like Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah. He seems to recognize the risks of climate change and also has the bonus of speaking Mandarin Chinese.

Leading the way

But at some point—very soon—we must have top-down, uniform action across the country. And I think that it behooves America, as the world’s most dominant power, to lead the way. I see the ski towns of the West adding their voice, using their prominence.

It’s not just enough to host the conferences and erect a few solar panels. In 2013, all of the solar energy in the United States amounted to just 0.23 percent of electrical consumption.

We need to accelerate, and as a group of people who have usually been refreshingly forward thinking, it’s time for mountain resort towns to step up on the podium as best they can to make that argument on behalf of a carbon tax.**

At some point—and I credit the Aspen Skiing Co. with this thought—there must be more sweeping changes than a few solar panels here and there. The most powerful tool that mountain towns have is their platform for advocacy. It’s time to do so.

* David Wendt, the co-founder of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, reports that he recently led a trip to China that included four members of the Wyoming Legislature, two Republicans and two Democrats. They visited three provinces that together produce more coal than all of the United States.

The basic goal of the trip was to “dispel the myth” that China is doing nothing about its carbon emissions, he said. That is an oft-cited excuse for doing nothing in the United States.

In fact, the Chinese are working earnestly to develop technology to prevent carbon dioxide emissions. Wyoming’s delegation returned to the U.S. with their fists pumping.

** For a more thorough explanation of the carbon tax, see Shi-Ling Hus’s tidy explanation. He’s a professor at the Florida State University College of Law.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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