Spring is the most beautiful season in the Carolinas – cool nights and mild days, colored with dogwoods, redbuds and azaleas. Just don’t count on your grandchildren enjoying the same beauty.
We think of nature as immutable, but the fossil record shows that the earth’s environment is very fragile. Perhaps the era of beautiful Carolina springs was changing anyway, but it was changing at an evolutionary pace. Industrialization has significantly accelerated that flux and has launched us into an unprecedented climate upheaval.
The last two years were the hottest on record. Scientific analysis shows that we are far outside the normal cyclical fluctuations in weather. There are almost certainly people alive today who will see calamitous rise in sea levels and the disappearance of islands and parts of the mainland we consider quite permanent.
If we are to have any chance of preserving the natural climate, we must act now. The world took a major step with the Paris agreement of last year. Nations will formally sign the resulting accord at the UN today on Earth Day.
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The U.S. commitment, however, is imperiled by the Supreme Court decision last year to stay the implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The plan treats CO2 and other greenhouse gases as pollutants, subject to regulation. Without this initiative or some new action from Washington, the U.S. is unlikely to meet its Paris commitments.
Frankly, the Clean Power Plan is not the answer. The more diverse and complex the sources of pollution, the harder it is to effectively deal with those sources through regulation.
Market mechanisms, not regulations, can effectively curtail the emissions of greenhouse gases. Markets ration resources. The market will limit pollutants to those uses for which there are few or no alternatives, where they are most valued by the economy. Moreover, markets are comprehensive, covering every source.
However, markets can effect this only if the price of fossil fuels reflects the cost of extracting, processing and transporting them and the cost society will incur in cleaning up the mess left by burning them. The current incomplete pricing signal is a shortcoming recognized by economics as an externality: it is external to the initial cost of the commodity but is a real cost directly resulting from its consumption. Left uncorrected, the incomplete, lower price leads the economy to consume more of the commodity than were buyers required to pay for the externality, in this case the subsequent clean-up of the environment.
A solution is available. A fee should be imposed on the carbon content of fossil fuels. Cleaner fuels like natural gas would have less cost added than dirtier fuels like coal. The fee should start relatively low and increase annually. To keep the process revenue neutral for the economy, revenues generated by the fee should be paid out to everyone on a per-capita basis in “dividends.” Over time the fossil fuel industry would decline, but a recent study shows that decline more than offset by growth in other segments of the economy.
Citizens Climate Lobby advocates for such a revenue neutral carbon fee. This approach has been endorsed by a wide array of concerned Americans. A bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives is a hopeful sign of serious consideration of such a strategy.
The most common objection to a revenue neutral carbon fee is perceived political reality: “It can’t happen.” The stakes are high enough that we must make it happen. Otherwise, spring may never be the same again.
Now retired, Richard Osborne was responsible for energy and public policy at Duke Energy in the early 2000s.