How a carbon tax can help Cory Gardner (and the rest of us, too)
by Allen Best
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner has a problem and an opportunity. He’s smart and flashes a winning grin, but he hugs the political right shoulder in a state that favors the middle lane and will veer leftward if Millennials, now in their 20s and early 30s, can be bothered to vote. They’ve been flocking to Colorado and, from gay marriage to climate change, they align more with liberal positions. If Democrats deliver a candidate with both a smile and a brain in 2020, Gardner will be gone.
Gardner needs to start defining himself as a sensible Republican. He can do that by leading the Republican Party out of its knuckle-dragging era about the reality of climate change by delivering a market-based solution to more aggressively reduce carbon emissions.
Carbon itself is not the problem. The problem is carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, compounded by changes in land uses that have impaired forests from sequestering atmospheric C02. Burning fossil fuels enjoy a hidden but giant subsidy. We use the atmosphere like a giant landfill, except that with a landfill you expect to pay a tipping fee. With the atmosphere, though, it’s free. You can’t see the accumulating garbage, but the science is clear enough. This is risky, even reckless, behavior.
We need to assign a fee on this giant, atmospheric dumping that will spur changes. Economists estimate it needs to be $40 to $60 a metric ton of emissions. A carbon fee, or tax, does not presume solutions, such as do subsidies for wind and solar. It merely tells the market: here’s the problem, now you figure out solutions.
This fee will reward us for ending wasteful habits, like leaving the door wide open in winter. It would encourage a longer perspective, such as in buying furnaces with higher energy efficiency ratings than the standard 85 percent. It would encourage research and development of new forms of energy production and distribution.
A carbon tax would not necessarily end use of carbon. With a clear market signal, companies might invest more heavily in developing lower-cost carbon capture-and- storage technology. The problem is not carbon, but atmospheric pollution.
Government must recognize the problem and create the framework for marketplace responses. Gardner has an opportunity to help fashion that framework. If he believes in the creativity of entrepreneurs and the wisdom of the marketplace, this is a place to demonstrate that conviction.
Gardner might even position the carbon tax as a compromise to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Even if the Supreme Court finds the EPA has over-reached its authority, which seems unlikely, it would be a hollow victory. We will still have the problem of greenhouse gas emissions to solve. A carbon tax could be delivered as the compromise solution.
Will jobs be lost? Perhaps, but those repairing typewriters, operating livery stables and many other occupations have had to pick up new skills. And British Columbia’s carbon tax, adopted in 2008, did not harm that province’s economy. New leaders in Alberta, the source of our oil/tar sands, are pushing for a $30/ton tax there. Several major oil companies support the tax, including Suncor—which operates the refinery in Commerce City. Even Exxon Mobil supports a carbon tax.
Gardner, as a youngster, was strongly influenced by Ronald Reagan. He should note that George Shultz, the secretary of state for Reagan, supports a carbon tax. For that matter, so does Bill Gates. He told Atlantic Magazine last year that a carbon tax is the starting place for creating the “miracle” that is needed to slow this rapid ride toward the precipice of climate disruption.
In 2009, opposition from farm and coal states killed the last major effort in Congress to address climate change. Gardner grew up near farms and in a coal state. I can think of no greater success for Gardner than to define a pathway for solving the most clearly defined problem of the 21st century.
This column was originally published in the Jan. 19, 2016, issue of The Denver Post.