Earth Institute Chief Trashes the Carbon Tax

Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s prestigious Earth Institute, recently weighed in on the carbon-tax debate in the Huffington Post. The results are breathtaking – and not in a good way.

Cohen’s June 8 screed, “A Carbon Tax Is Not Feasible or Practical,” was a riposte to a New York Times editorial two days earlier endorsing a carbon tax as “one of the best policies available” to address global warming. The Times is wrong, says Cohen, as he proceeds to lay out a multi-count indictment. Among his anti-CT arguments are the following:

1. Carbon taxes are politically infeasible: Given the system’s deep hostility to tax hikes, “the space between the carbon tax as a policy idea and the reality of American politics is too vast to overcome. For better or worse, here in America we are in a period of tax policy paralysis that is unlikely to be surmounted anytime soon.”

2. Carbon taxes are unfair: They “cause people on the lower end of the economic ladder to pay a higher portion of their income on energy,” while corrective measures aimed at redistributing the costs “are far from simple to implement, might stigmatize recipients, and would become easy and obvious political targets.”

3. Contrary to The Times, carbon taxes are unequal to the problem of climate change because they would founder on the shoals of international politics: “China and India would need to go along, and given the urgency of their energy and development needs, it is difficult to imagine that they would agree to such a measure.”

4. Carbon taxes are anti-urban: “I sometimes think the push for a carbon tax comes out of an early 20th century environmentalist mindset that scolds people for consumption and living in evil, immoral cities.”

5. Finally, carbon taxes are unnecessary since tax breaks can be just as easily used to encourage alternative energy development: “Why waste time and effort on an infeasible policy that will never happen? Why not devote time and effort to building a real partnership between the public and private sector to create a sustainable economy?”

NYT-CohenCareful readers will notice that the first two items are variations on a theme, which is to say the futility of relying on the U.S. political system to pass a well-crafted carbon-tax plan that discourages fossil fuels without burdening workers and the poor. The same can be said for number three, which is about the inability of a beggar-thy-neighbor international system to institute significant reform. Whether the fault lies with Washington, Beijing, or New Delhi, Cohen argues, the point remains that politicians of all nationalities are too selfish and shortsighted to deal intelligently with a carbon tax, so it’s best to forget the whole thing.

Charges four and five are different, so let’s tackle those first. [Read more…]

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Last modified: June 27, 2015

Don’t Anchor a Carbon Tax to the Social Cost of Carbon

Editor’s note: Yesterday the world’s most influential newspaper finally did what CTC and other carbon tax proponents have sought for years: publish a ringing endorsement of a U.S. carbon tax. With its editorial, The Case for a Carbon Tax, the New York Times joins the growing community of opinion leaders, policy experts and, yes, elected officials who not only recognize the power of carbon taxes to quickly and equitably reduce emissions but also sense the emergence of a political critical mass that can enact fees into law. This heartening development signals that it’s not too soon to focus on the design of a U.S. carbon tax, especially its magnitude and rate of increase, as CTC senior policy analyst James Handley does in this post.

Which is the more effective way to set a tax on carbon pollution?

A. Start aggressively, then raise the rate slowly (“sprint”).

B. Start modestly, then raise the rate briskly and predictably (“marathon”).

You probably guessed that if the goal is to instill incentives that will bring about big emission reductions fast enough to avoid runaway global warming, the answer is B, the marathon. Yet a leading U.S. Senate advocate of legislative action on climate seems to be starting off like a sprinter, perhaps because his legislation is pegged to estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon that don’t account for the possibility that climate change will turn out to be catastrophically costly.

More on that senator in a moment — after this tutorial:

The Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) is a construct to quantify in monetary terms the damage caused by each additional ton of CO2 added to the atmosphere. While the SCC may sound arcane or academic, estimating its magnitude has real world implications: governments are pegging climate-related regulatory decisions to SCC estimates. A low SCC can make all but the lowest-cost clean-energy policies pencil out as expensive; higher estimates justify more rapid and aggressive measures, since moving too slowly to reduce emissions shows up as a mistake whose costs accumulate at a frightening pace.

Ice Shelf on eastern edge of Edgeoya, Norway. Waterfall. (20090812) (Strcorarius parasiticus)

Ice Shelf Melting in Eastern Norway (Paul Hoogeveen, Flickr)

Calculating the damage from a ton of CO2 turns on a host of assumptions that span wide ranges. Not surprisingly, estimates of the SCC reported in the peer-reviewed economics literature range from as little as $10 per ton of CO2 to over $400. A profoundly important modeling choice is how heavily to weigh the risks of climate-induced catastrophes. High-risk climate scenarios with nearly infinite costs, such as rapid release of methane from arctic permafrost or sudden sliding of vast ice masses into the ocean, “misbehave” in the equations used for conventional cost-benefit analysis, leading some modelers to omit them altogether.

One widely-used model assumes that economic growth rates will not be affected by climate change, thereby predicting that half of the world’s economic activity would continue after a whopping 18 degrees C of global warming. Other models dilute the high-risk scenarios by assigning them arbitrarily low probabilities that suppress their impact when their costs are averaged in with low-risk scenarios. A further problem in estimating the SCC is the bias toward high “discount rates” that telescope future impacts down to seemingly manageable proportions.

Amidst fraught debate and widely-divergent estimates, the Interagency Working Group has settled on $42 per ton of CO2 as the “official” U.S. government social cost of carbon. While that’s an improvement over past practice that omitted climate costs entirely — tacitly, an SCC equal to zero — the $42 figure grossly understates the large-scale global risks that dominate concern over global warming and climate change. [Read more…]

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Last modified: June 28, 2015

Book Review: “Climate Shock”

Rachael Sotos is a political theorist and adjunct professor with a background in philosophy, classics and environmental studies.

Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, is both a tidy summation of the state of the art in climate economics and a powerful call for action. For all the uncertainties and challenges, “the overall policy framework needed for addressing climate change is clear and has been for decades,” state co-authors Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman (p. 23). “Carbon dioxide is the problem. Pricing it properly is the solution.”(38)

climate shock coverWagner, a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, and Weitzman, a celebrated economist at Harvard, are an intriguing blend of young and elder, and realist and idealist. They exhort economists and climate advocates to get past the “epic debates” between taxes and cap-and-trade and, while consensus builds toward carbon pricing, to engage in the work required for “second -, third-, and fourth-best solutions”(26): electricity grid reform, stronger CAFE standards, and strategic application of subsidies and U.S. EPA regulations. “At the very least,” they say, “these regulations could provide a real bargaining chip when it comes to U.S. Congress considering comprehensive climate policy and a direct price on carbon down the line.”(19).

Flying their Pigovian colors from Preface to Epilogue, the authors are emphatic and unambiguous; “Putting a proper price on carbon isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when.(xi) Our best hope is “a high enough price on carbon to reflect its true cost to society.”(152)

Unfortunately, the bracing clarity of Climate Shock appears to have been lost on some reviewers. Earlier this month, NY Times columnist Joe Nocera misconstrued Wagner and Weitzman’s extensive discussion of geo-engineering as surrender to the political obstacles to carbon pricing. On Nocera’s reading, insofar as “a carbon tax on the worst emitters has gotten nowhere,” it’s time for Plan B: “chemo for the planet.” Au contraire, Wagner and Weitzman do not delve into geo-engineering scenarios like sulfates dispersal in lieu of ambitious policies to reduce emissions. Rather, they insist, “the specter of geo-engineering should be a clarion call for action. Decisive, and soon.”(29)

If Nocera reconfigured Wagner and Weitzman to suit his own techno-utopian ends, Yale Nobel economist Robert J. Shiller, also in the Times, willfully invested Climate Shock with libertarian designs. Directly contravening the thoughtful and informative discussion of social change presented in Climate Shock (and previously thematized in Wagner’s 2011 But Will the Planet Notice?), Shiller proposed idealistically-motivated incrementalism as a way around Kyoto’s failure “to impose strict taxes on carbon emissions.”

According to Shiller, Wagner and Weitzman “say that we should be asking people to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions.” Climate Shock actually says the opposite: “the numbers don’t add up. They’ll only begin to add up when environmentalists use their collective political powers to move the policy needle in the right direction, toward a price on carbon.”(40) (See also CTC director Charles Komanoff’s recent takedown of Shiller’s piece in regard to both facts and theory.)

Shiller’s misreading is doubly unfortunate because, as Wagner and Weitzman point out, the imperative to seriously engage policy must be directed toward average citizens, “those in the middle of the political spectrum,” as well as those already conversant with climate economics.(136) Certainly we should all do what we can to encourage virtuous cycles of ethical engagement and political participation – “Recycling well leads to better environmental policies, which allow for a more environmentally enlightened citizenry; a more enlightened citizenry, in turn, leads to more people recycling well.”(132)

"Climate Shock" authors Martin Weitzman (left) and Gernot Wagner.

“Climate Shock” authors Martin Weitzman (left) and Gernot Wagner.

Indeed. But, as Wagner and Weitzman are right to remind: in a greenwashed world seemingly structured to distract and misinform the average person, the most virtuous deeds can dead end. In the practical economics of everyday life, single actions sometimes crowd out other forms of engagement: “when people substitute single, individual actions – like recycling – for larger policy actions – like voting.”(133) Pigovians from start to finish, Wagner and Weitzman are emphatic: “if you have to make a choice between recycling and voting for a price on carbon, choose voting.”(137)

Yet another review, this one by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus in the current New York Review of Books, is notable on several grounds, not least of which is Nordhaus’s outsized reputation as a pioneering climate economist and modeler. Respectful in tone, Nordhaus engages of Climate Shock’s discussions of geo-engineering, the economics of uncertainty and the pitfalls of negotiating climate treaties. Strangely, however, Nordhaus takes up Weitzman’s path-breaking analyses of catastrophic risk without acknowledging any critiques of his own perennially optimistic approach.
[Read more…]

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Last modified: May 29, 2015

Carbon Tax Polling Milestone: 2/3 Support if Revenue-Neutral

For more years than I care to count, the Carbon Tax Center beseeched pollsters to take Americans’ temperature on revenue-neutral carbon taxes. Time and again we explained that polling about carbon taxes had to incorporate the option of returning revenues to households ― as most carbon tax bills would do. Otherwise, the tax came off as all stick and no carrot, and about as appealing to most folks as a cold shower.

Finally, a Stanford University-Resources for the Future poll asked that question. The results, released today, show that two-thirds of Americans support making corporations pay a price for carbon pollution, provided the revenues are redistributed, i.e., made revenue-neutral. The poll’s finding is the most powerful indication yet that the public is warming to carbon taxation as the premier policy for combating climate change.

Poll-Graphic-Pie-Chart-AltStanford and RFF commissioned the polling firm SSRS to interview 1,023 U.S. adults on climate-related issues in January. Two findings from the poll — that Americans of Hispanic descent are particularly climate-concerned, and that half of Republicans would favor a presidential candidate who supports fighting climate change — led to front-page New York Times stories. (Click here for the story on Hispanics and here for the story on Republicans.) The full poll was made publicly available today at a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington.

The poll was supervised by RFF university fellow Jon Krosnick, who has been polling Americans on climate change for two decades as head of Stanford’s Political Psychology Research Group. Its section on carbon taxation included these two questions: [Read more…]

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Last modified: April 30, 2015

Climate Idealism Can’t Hold a Candle to Collective Action

Why do Copenhageners ride bicycles? The key reason, says Yale economist and best-selling author (“Irrational Exuberance”) Robert J. Shiller, is that Danes are idealists who resolved, after the oil crisis of the 1970s, “to make a personal commitment to ride bicycles rather than drive, out of moral principle, even if that was inconvenient for them.”

“The sight of so many others riding bikes motivated the city’s inhabitants and appears to have improved the moral atmosphere enough,” Shiller wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, that the share of working inhabitants of Copenhagen who bike has reached 50 percent.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

In much the same way, Shiller argues, “asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions” may be a more effective way to bring down carbon emissions than trying to enact overarching national or global policies such as carbon emission caps or taxes.

Goodness. Rarely do smart people so badly mangle both the historical record and basic economics. I say “people” because Shiller attributes his column’s main points to a new book, “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet” by Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund and Martin L. Weitzman, a Harvard economist. And I say “smart” because the three stand at the top of their profession. Shiller won the Economics Nobel in 2013, Weitzman is a leading light in the economics of climate change, and Wagner is highly regarded young economist.

But mangle they have (I haven’t seen the Wagner-Weitzman book but assume that Shiller represents it fairly).

Let’s start with the history, which is fairly well known to anyone versed in cycling advocacy, as I’ve been since the 1980s, when I spearheaded the revival of New York City’s bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (as recounted here.) Copenhagen’s 40-year bicycle upsurge, and indeed much of the uptake of cycling across Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, came about not through mass idealism but from deliberate public policies to help cities avoid the damages of pervasive automobile use while reducing oil dependence.

If idealism played a part at the outset it was a social idealism that instructed government to undertake integrated policies ­― stiff gas taxes and car ownership fees; generously funded public transit; elimination of free curbside parking; provision of safe and abundant bicycle routes ― that enabled Copenhageners to do what they evidently desired all along: to use bikes safely and naturally.

The telltale is in the graphic. Only one in eleven Copenhageners who cycle have environment and climate in mind. The majority do it because it’s faster than other ways to travel, and around a third of cyclists say they ride because it’s healthy, inexpensive and convenient ― belying Shiller’s meme of Danes idealistically choosing bikes despite their inconvenience vis-à-vis cars. [Read more…]

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Last modified: April 15, 2015

One Cheer for the Guardian’s Divestment Campaign

The worldwide fossil fuel divestment campaign got a huge boost this week when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger boldly thrust his paper into the fray. Britain’s most respected newspaper is urging readers to sign a petition by 350.org demanding that the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Charitable Trust divest from the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years.

Divestment can’t loosen the fossil fuel stranglehold without a carbon tax.

Combined, the two charities manage over $70 billion in assets. Both say they consider climate change a  serious threat. But last year the Gates Foundation invested at least $1 billion of its holdings in 35 of the top 200 carbon reserve companies, while the Wellcome Trust invested $834 million in fuel-industry mainstays Shell, BP, Schlumberger, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

We’re both elated and concerned by Rusbridger’s audacious move. Elated that this distinguished and brave journalist has thrown down the gauntlet to the global fossil fuel industry. But concerned that this divestment campaign may raise false hopes.

As Matthew Yglesias articulated last year in a thoughtful piece on Slate, divestment by socially responsible investors, universities and even governments won’t starve capital flows to fossil fuel corporations anytime soon. That’s because in a global market, every share of stock we activists dutifully unload will be snatched up in milliseconds by some trader who can bank on humanity’s continued dependence on fossil fuels to continue generating profits.

South Africa’s historic divestment campaign — the one that helped topple Apartheid and enshrined divestment as a tool against oppression  — was paired with a UN-sponsored boycott of South African goods. Not just aiming at the supply of capital but destroying the demand for goods sheared the Apartheid regime’s economic lifeline to the rest of the world more than either policy could have done alone.

No, we’re not suggesting a global boycott of fossil fuels. Rather, we point to the Guardian’s campaign to reiterate that the best and maybe only broadly effective way to reduce fossil fuel demand (which is the point of a boycott) is with a carbon tax. Economists agree on that policy prescription just as strongly as climate scientists agree on the diagnosis. And national-level carbon taxes can be designed to draw our or any nation’s global trading partners into carbon taxing, which means that a move by a big economy to impose a carbon tax will trigger a wave of followers.

So by all means, divest. The cultural and perhaps political opprobrium that divestment can spark is long overdue for the fossil fuels industry. But let’s not assume that divestment alone will break the chains of fossil fuel dependence. Even with the Guardian’s welcome campaign, the world still needs a transparent price on carbon pollution to strangle demand for fossil fuels by replacing them with non-carbon alternatives.

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Last modified: March 19, 2015

British Columbia’s Carbon Tax Architects Speak

A new report from a British Columbia think tank reveals the inside story behind B.C.’s successful tax on CO2 pollution. “How to Adopt a Winning Carbon Price, Top Ten Takeaways from Interviews with the Architects of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax,” published by Clean Energy Canada, draws on extensive interviews with senior government officials, elected representatives and a broad range of experts who helped shape or respond to this groundbreaking policy.

BC C-TX RPT CVRBritish Columbia inaugurated its carbon tax on July 1, 2008 at a rate of $10 (Canadian) per metric ton (“tonne”) of carbon dioxide released from coal, oil and natural gas burned in the province. The tax incremented by $5/tonne annually, reaching its current level of $30 per tonne of CO2 in July 2012. At the current U.S.-Canadian dollar exchange rate (1.00/0.80), and converting from tonnes to short tons, the B.C. tax now equates to around $22 (U.S.) per ton of CO2.

In the tax’s initial four years (2008 to 2012), CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in British Columbia fell 5% — or 9% per capita, considering the province’s 4.5% population growth over that span. [NB: These figures are revised downward from the original version of this post; see editor’s note at end.] During the same period, emissions from the rest of Canada increased slightly. Revenue from the tax has funded more than a billion dollars worth of cuts in individual and business taxes annually, while a tax credit protects low-income households who might not benefit from the tax cuts. [Read more…]

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Last modified: March 18, 2015

Conservatives: Unpriced Carbon Pollution is Theft — Milton Friedman Would Tax It

Free dumping of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere is nothing less than “theft” from future generations who stand to suffer from unabated global warming, declared University of Chicago economist Steve Cicala at a symposium last week in honor of the conservative icon Milton Friedman. “It is theft,” said Cicala. “That’s a loaded term, but if someone else has a better term for taking something from someone without their consent and without compensating them, I’d be happy to hear it.”

E&E News reports that Cicala and former Obama White House adviser Michael Greenstone, who holds the Friedman chair at the U. of Chicago and directs its Energy Policy Institute, asserted that “if the late free-market economist Milton Friedman were alive today, he’d probably support pricing carbon.”

Free-Market Economist Milton Friedman
Free-Market Economist Milton Friedman

According to E&E, Cicala and Greenstone argued that,

Friedman… would have viewed climate change as a negative externality associated with burning fossil fuels and would have believed that society was entitled to recover its losses from those who emit carbon to advance their economic interests… While there is a market for the products that are associated with greenhouse gas emissions — like electricity, fuel and steel — there is no market for the pollution inflicted by their manufacturers on the public. [Read more…]

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