During last night’s Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate in New Hampshire, Charles Gibson, ABC-TV News Anchor, noted that none of the candidates on the stage favor a carbon tax and asked whether it’s a bad idea or just too politically unpalatable. No one would ‘fess up to lacking political courage, courage previously demonstrated by Senator Dodd (no longer a candidate), Senator Gravel (not present at the debate), and Mayor Bloomberg (possible candidate). Governor Richardson criticized a carbon tax for passing costs on to consumers and disingenuously implied the same isn’t true for cap-and-trade, Senator Obama was intellectually honest and corrected Governor Richardson. Senator Clinton avoided the question in her response and Senator Edwards didn’t say anything.
MR. GIBSON: All right. Let me turn to something else.
Reversing — you invoked the name of Al Gore a few moments ago.
Reversing or slowing global warming is going to take sacrifice. I’m
sort of sorry Chris Dodd isn’t here because he’s talked a lot about a
carbon tax in this election. Al Gore favors a carbon tax. None of
you have favored a carbon tax. Is it a bad idea? Or is it just so
politically unpalatable that you guys don’t want to propose it?
GOV. RICHARDSON: It’s — can I answer? You know, I was Energy
secretary. It’s a bad idea because when you have a carbon tax, first
of all, it’s not a mandate. What you want is a mandate on polluters,
on coal companies, on — on — on those that pollute to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions by a certain target — under my plan, 30
percent by the year 2020, 80 percent by the year 2040. It takes
The better way to do it is through a cap-and-trade system, which
is a mandate. Furthermore, a carbon tax, that’s passed on to
consumers. That’s passed on to the average person. That’s money you
take out of the economy. So it’s a bad idea. Cap-and-trade is
mandate, but it’s also going to take presidential leadership. It’s
going to take all of us here, every American, you know, to think more
efficiently about how we transport ourself, what vehicles we purchase,
appliances in our homes.
It’s going to take a transportation policy that doesn’t just build
more highways. We have to have commuter rail, light rail, open
spaces. We got to have — we got to have land use policies where we
improve people’s quality of life.
MR. SPRADLING: Senator Obama?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I agree with Bill, that I think cap-and-trade
system makes more sense. That’s why I proposed it because you can be
very specific in terms of how we’re going to reduce the greenhouse
gases by a particular l level. Now what you have to do is you have to
combine it with a hundred percent auction. In other words, every
little bit of pollution that is sent up into the atmosphere that
polluter is getting charged for it. Not only does that ensure that
they don’t game the system, but you’re also generating billions of
dollars that can be invested in solar and wind and biodiesel.
I do disagree with one thing, though, that Bill said, and that is
that on a carbon tax the cost will be passed onto consumers and that
won’t happen with a cap-and-trade. Under a cap-and-trade there will
be a cost. Plants are going to have to retrofit their equipment, and
that’s going to cost money, and they will pass it onto consumers. We
have an obligation to use some of the money that we generate to shield
low-income and fixed-income individuals from high electricity prices,
but we’re also going to have to ask the American people to change how
they use energy. Everybody’s going to have to change their light
bulbs. Everybody’s going to have to insulate their homes. And that
will be a sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice that we can meet. Over the
long term it will generate jobs and businesses and can drive our
economy for many decades.
SEN. CLINTON: Charlie, let me make a connection here that I
think is really important.
I think the economy is slipping toward a recession — the
unemployment figure on Friday hitting 5 percent, the $100 a barrel oil
that we also hit this week, the fall of the dollar.
There’s a lot of pressures on middle-class families, and the kind of
costs that they have to keep up with have all gone up astronomically.
I mean, you know, the energy costs of the typical family in New
Hampshire since George Bush has been president have tripled, and
that’s far beyond what — the cost of the tax cuts that they got from
So what we’ve got to do is use energy as an opportunity to
actually jump-start economic recovery. We need to quickly move toward
energy efficiency. We should require the utilities to begin to work
for energy efficiency and conservation, costs that will be shared and
decrease the pressure on families. We need a weatherization and low-
income heating emergency program that is out there now helping
families in New Hampshire and elsewhere to cover their costs. And we
need to look at how doing what is right about energy is not only good
for our security and good for the fight against global warming, but it
will be essential in dealing with the economic challenges that we
Imagine Mayor Bloomberg had been on the stage and had repeated what he said at the United States Conference of Mayors in November:
Both cap-and-trade and pollution pricing present their own challenges —
but there is an important difference between the two. The primary flaw
of cap-and-trade is economic — price uncertainty. While the primary
flaw of a pollution fee is political, the difficulty of getting it
through Congress. But I’ve never been one to let short-term politics
get in the way of long-term success. The job of an elected official is
to lead – not to stick a finger in the wind. It’s to stand up and say
what we believe — no matter what the polls say is popular or what the
pundits say is political suicide.
Or, Senator Dodd might have repeated his earlier statement that "The American people handle the truth very, very well. What they don’t handle well is people in public life promising results without talking about what has to be done to get those results." Senator Gravel might have repeated his earlier response to the statement that some people say supporting a carbon tax would be political suicide, "I back it in any case."
Political courage is hard to find in a presidential campaign. Fortunately, the real decisions on how to address climate change will likely be made after the November elections when Congress and the new Administration will be able to focus more on economics and good policy.