“Once the climate tipping point is past …”

11/14/2012 by Charles Komanoff

Every so often, you read something that stops you in your tracks. That happened to me yesterday, when I came across this:

We are talking about our grandchildren living in a resource-constrained future where they have a chance to learn to live in balance with the planet, or our grandchildren living in a future truly filled with squalor, death and misery. Once the climate tipping point is past, human beings will pay any price to go back but it will be to no avail. And they will wonder why their ancestors thought driving SUVs and air conditioning the outdoors was more important than water, food and survival of their progeny.

I read this passage yesterday on Amtrak as I was returning to New York City from Washington. Last Saturday, I participated in one of the “Fossil Fuel Disaster Relief Rides” organized by the direct-action environmental group Time’s Up. We hauled supplies by bike to the Rockaways, one of dozens of districts in the New York region devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and we stuck around to help residents drag the sodden wreckage of their living rooms and garages onto the sidewalk. The scene was post-apocalyptic: trash mounds towering over twisted bungalows; dump trucks and ‘dozers lumbering down dirt-caked streets; dust, muck and ruin stretching for miles; the sun filtered through a torn sky. I also knew from published reports that my home town of Long Beach, on the next barrier beach to the east, had similarly been laid waste.

Rockaway Beach, NY, Nov. 11, 2012. Photo: duluoz cats (Flickr).

“Human beings will pay any price to go back but it will be to no avail.” Fittingly, the writer was responding to a post on Streetsblog, the blog of the “livable-streets” movement, that for some dubious reason was pouring cold water on the hope that a carbon tax might figure in the emerging equation for tax and fiscal reform. Not only that, the writer was telling other commenters that a visit to our (Carbon Tax Center) Web site could dispel their doubts that a carbon tax could be made effective and fair. Here’s her comment, in full:

Again, please see the link that Komanoff posted below in the very first comment.  (www.carbontax.org) Most of the questions raised below are answered — how to measure carbon emissions, at what point in the emissions stream to effectively tax it, how a carbon tax can be revenue neutral, why no one is or will ever suggest taxing people breathing, etc.

As to how to deal with off-shoring of carbon emissions, we would indeed have to be more responsible about this than we have been with off-shoring all our other pollution. We could either refuse to trade with countries that don’t impose carbon taxes at similar levels, or we could levy a tariff on all imported products based on the level of that country’s gross fossil-fuel burning carbon emissions. (We would no doubt have to estimate in cases where self-reported numbers are unreliable.) This would have an added benefit of on-shoring manufacturing jobs back to the US.

With a carbon fee and dividend program, people would actually make money as long as they kept their usage below that of the average energy-squandering American. This is not difficult to do! All it takes it takes is simple behavioral changes and/or very small investments of money that will be paid back with lower fuel bills. But there simply must be a price signal or people will not change their energy consumption and carbon emissions patterns. And these carbon emission patterns need to drop immediately. Not by 2020 or 2030. Any plan that talks about doing something 2020 and beyond is a plan to do nothing because it will be too late. It is hypocritical greenwashing designed to distract and pretend, pure and simple.

We are talking about our grandchildren living in a resource-constrained future where they have a chance to learn to live in balance with the planet, or our grandchildren living in a future truly filled with squalor, death and misery. Once the climate tipping point is past, human beings will pay any price to go back but it will be to no avail. And they will wonder why their ancestors thought driving SUVs and air conditioning the outdoors was more important than water, food and survival of their progeny.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the case for a carbon tax made more powerfully and eloquently than in those four paragraphs. I know that I in lower Manhattan and my fellow New Yorkers in the Rockaways and Long Beach and Staten Island now wish we could have paid whatever it would have taken to buy the reduction in sea-level rise and ocean-temperature rise that might have quenched some of the force of Hurricane Sandy. Taking that knowledge and building it into support for a robust U.S. carbon tax is our new mission at the Carbon Tax Center.

PS: As for that Amtrak trip to DC yesterday. That’s where AEI, RFF, the IMF and Brookings held an all-day conference — before a packed house — on The Economics of Carbon Taxes. Click the link to unpack the acronyms and see the program. We’ll post a report soon.


5 Comments »

  1. [...] Neither candidate paid much attention to climate change during the presidential election: it wasn’t so much as mentioned in any of the three debates. Then came Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg’s climate-motivated endorsement of President Obama, and Businesweek’s mince-no-words cover. There’s also the fiscal cliff (or austerity bomb, if you prefer). What better time to start taxing carbon? [...]

    Pingback by Counterparties: When climate change gets fiscal | Felix Salmon — November 15, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

  2. You are so right on the mark, Charlie,as you have been for the many years we have collaborated. The missing link that seems to be unattainable, is convincing majorities in Congress to take the required actions and and enough of the pubic that doing so is a sound investment essential to their future and that of their projeny. If Hurricane Sandy can’t do that, or the droughts, floods and wildfires that have proliferated, I don’t know how it can be done. The human species just seems so short-sighted that they are willing to trade away overwhelming costs in the future for relatively minor costs today. And those of who can afford it should be the ones held responsible.

    Instead of a carbon tax that seems beyond our reach, the developed world or UN should issue “Survivor Bonds” allocated on the basis of national income,on which the return could be based on the costs to society saved by mitigation and adaptation, with a heavy penalty for non-participants. That’s the best alternative I can conjure. But since the world seems to turn on monitary returns these days, it might be worth a try. I recognize that it would be a carbon tax equivilant, but the idea of a return might just make it feasible. Best. Dick Ottinger

    Comment by Richard Ottinger — November 17, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

  3. Mr Komanoff: Thanks for keeping up the good fight. And thank you for delivering aid by bicycle! “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    Comment by David F Collins — November 17, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  4. Hi Charlie. Congratulations on a terrific piece. And more generally for your work on a carbon tax. Its time must come soon. Bevis

    Comment by bevis longstreth — November 17, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

  5. How are so many that are supposedly in the know have missed this? What may of been the main factor in Sandy? The cause of the storm may of just been caused by both parties, democrats and republicans alike. The corn ethanol fiasco. green energy just may of been the real cause. Corn ethanol the boondoggle that just may be what causes the 2nd great depression? Maybe. It was also what caused the first “Great depression” too. When farm land and farm commodities fell like a rock we soon entered the depression. A 80 acre farm just sold for $10,600 a acre!! Do we see another bubble? You bet I do, all induced by our government.

    Over the last 20-30 years I have really seen the changes in our local climate and no I am not a scientist either. It has been the removal of all our trees. Removed by the growing big farmer, not the small ones. Our main road in town and my road have seen our trees removed. Trees are the air conditioning that cools our soil. Tree lines, woods, and roadways have been cleared for semi trucks and huge irrigation systems that suck our ground water dry. A dry and open ground naturally heats up faster and warmer than normal. Some of the ill affects that our government causes are unintended, or are they? Corn ethanol also has caused unrest around the globe, all for the hidden cause of spreading democracy. Well now that too has backfired.

    Back in 1980 we had 42 different makes of autos that got 40 or more miles per gallon of gas, really. Those were not profitable enough for the unionized auto makers and all their benefits they received. I have right in front of me a check stub that I have from 2/6/1977, the same year I graduated. I was making $2.30 an hour part time and I worked 30 1/4 hours that week, that is very close to the average hours worked now for full time workers. Back then union factories around here were making 15-17 bucks an hour, but all those factories are closed. Does anyone have to wonder why? Like our trees there gone, but I haven’t forgotten their asset to my local climate and a once thriving community. We are now under the illusion that something still goes on here in “Silo City”, alias Decatur Michigan. You can see my community that I just hate now and I used to love it so. You tube Mike Stamp Farms and you may see the boondoggle of corn ethanol a green energy gone bad, courtesy of our politicians. Just great…………..I do miss all those trees. The ethanol Plant that most of our corn here went to also just filed bankruptcy. The New Energy, ethanol plant in South Bend Indiana. Here we go again.

    Comment by brian penning — November 18, 2012 @ 8:51 am

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