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Best Articles, Videos & Books

This page features a selection of articles, video clips and books from a variety of perspectives making the case for taxing climate pollution.


Let this be the year when we put a proper price on carbon

Lawrence Summers, who has served as Treasury Secretary, President of Harvard University and Chief Economist of the World Bank, trenchantly articulated the compelling reasons and auspicious timing for a carbon tax in an op-ed in both the Financial Times and the Washington Post (January 5, 2015). We offer some excerpts:

The case for carbon taxes has long been compelling. With the recent steep fall in oil prices and associated declines in other energy prices it is overwhelming. There is room for debate about the size of the tax and about how the proceeds should be deployed. But there should be no doubt that starting from the current zero tax rate on carbon, increased taxation would be desirable.

[T]hose who use carbon-based fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions. When we drive our cars, heat our homes or use fossil fuels in more indirect ways, all of us create these costs without paying for them. It follows that we overuse these fuels. While the recent decline in energy prices is a good thing in that it has, on balance, raised the incomes of Americans, it has also exacerbated the problem of energy overuse. The benefit of imposing carbon taxes is therefore enhanced.

[A] well-designed tax would be levied on the carbon content of all imports coming from countries that did not impose their own carbon levies. The United States can make the case that such a tax is compatible with World Trade Organization rules. Such an approach would have the virtue of encouraging countries who wished to avoid the U.S. tax to impose carbon taxes of their own, thereby further supporting efforts to reduce global climate change.

A U.S. carbon tax would… be a hugely important symbolic step ahead of the global climate summit in Paris late this year. It would shift the debate toward harmonized measures to raise the price of carbon use and away from the complex cap-and-trade-type systems that have proved more difficult to operate than expected in the European Union and elsewhere.

My preference would be for the funds to be split between investments in infrastructure and pro-work tax credits. An additional $50 billion a year in infrastructure spending would be a significant contribution to closing America’s investment gap in that area. The same sum devoted to pro-work tax credits could finance a huge increase in the earned-income tax credit, a meaningful reduction in the payroll tax or some combination of the two.

Progressives who are most concerned about climate change should rally to a carbon tax. Conservatives who believe in the power of markets should favor carbon taxes on market principles. And Americans who want to see their country lead on the energy and climate issues that are crucial to the world this century should want to be in the vanguard on carbon taxes. Now is the time.

Bigger, Cleaner, and More Efficient: A Carbon-Corporate Tax Swap

Donald Marron served as economic adviser to President G.W. Bush, acting director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and executive director of the Joint Committee on Taxation. Marron now co-directs the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. In a 2013 paper, he and Eric Toder analyzed the climate and macro-economic benefits of a carbon tax “shift” to reduce top corporate income tax rates. In the Cato Online Forum (November 2014) Marron outlined the conservative principles behind his proposal to combine effective climate policy with pro-growth economic policy:

Four recurring lessons from tax and environmental policy…

First, taxing bads is better than taxing goods. When the government levies a tax, people and businesses are less likely to do the taxed activity…

Second, putting a price on carbon is the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions. In the absence of a national carbon price, as from a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, policymakers will likely continue to pursue piecemeal regulations and subsidies. Indeed, we see that today in heightened fuel economy standards and state-by-state electric power plant regulations. These regulatory efforts can reduce emissions, but at greater cost per ton than a national carbon price.

Third, the corporate income tax is especially distortionary… it discourages business investment and weakens economic growth… [T]he Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development identified corporate income taxes as having “a particularly negative impact on GDP per capita,” especially through their effect on “dynamic and innovative” businesses.

Fourth, America’s corporate income tax is especially problematic. The statutory tax rate is the highest in the world at more than 39 percent (including federal and state taxes) and the U.S. is one of only a few nations that taxes resident corporations on their worldwide income. At the same time, our corporate system includes many tax breaks that dramatically lower the effective rate some businesses really pay. This toxic mix benefits lawyers and accountants but has made the United States an unattractive place for many firms to maintain their legal residence. One symptom has been the recent increase in tax-driven inversions.

[A] carbon-corporate tax swap, paired with appropriate relief for low-income families, would make our economy bigger, cleaner, and more efficient.

A Carbon Tax Is Our Only Hope

In the edgy “Gawker” magazine (May 27, 2014), Hamilton Nolan trenchantly explained why, if we’re serious about tackling global warming, we need a stiff carbon tax to climate polluters:

Why does a pack of cigarettes cost fifteen… dollars in New York City? Because New York City uses taxes to add the future costs of smoking to the cost of smoking today. We know that smokers end up costing society a lot of money for health care years down the road; with cigarette taxes, smokers in the city pay those costs up front. The realization of the true cost of a negative behavior is quite an effective way to not only pay those costs, but also to change the behavior.

This is the basic rationale for a carbon tax. We know that carbon emissions are causing global warming, which will impose a disastrous cost on all of humanity in the years to come. So make those who emit carbon pay those costs up front, by taxing them…

There is no other tactic that will have as big an impact on carbon emissions within our 15-year window of opportunity for action. Forces that operate solely out of self interest will continue to oppose any and all sacrifices right up until the sea swallows their vacation homes. Forget them. The activists and political leaders who have genuine concern about this issue must all unite around some form of carbon tax as a solution. Fighting polluters on a piecemeal basis will not be enough. Public education campaigns will not be enough. Global warming must be made too expensive to be viable. Tax the hell out of it. It’s not unfair pricing. On the contrary, it is the only way to make carbon emissions exactly as expensive as they deserve to.

Science Is Unequivocal, Policy Is Obvious: Tax CO2 Pollution

New Yorker science writer and author of “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” Elizabeth Kolbert linked the overwhelming climate science consensus to ith the equally robust climate economics consensus (April 14, 2014):

[T]he Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest update on the looming crisis that is global warming. Only this time it isn’t just looming. The signs are that “both coral reef and Arctic systems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts,” the panel noted… The I.P.C.C.’s list of potential warming-induced disasters—from ecological collapse to famine, flooding, and pestilence—reads like a riff on the ten plagues. Matching the terror is the collective shame of it. “Why should the world pay attention to this report?” the chairman of the I.P.C.C., Rajendra Pachauri, asked the day the update was released. Because “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Economists on both sides of the political spectrum agree that the most efficient way to reduce emissions is to impose a carbon tax. “If you want less of something, every economist will tell you to do the same thing: make it more expensive,” former Mayor Michael Bloomberg observed, in a speech announcing his support for such a tax. In the United States, a carbon tax could replace other levies—for example, the payroll tax—or, alternatively, the money could be used to reduce the deficit. Within a decade, according to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, a relatively modest tax of twenty-five dollars per metric ton of carbon would reduce affected emissions by about ten per cent, while increasing federal revenues by a trillion dollars. If other countries failed to follow suit, the U.S. could, in effect, extend its own tax by levying it on goods imported from those countries.

All You Need to Know About British Columbia’s Carbon Tax Shift in Five Charts

Alan Durning and Yoram Bauman, of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, graphically illustrated the economic and climate success of their northern neighbor British Columbia’s simple, revenue-neutral carbon tax (March 11, 2014):

BC’s carbon pricing system is the best in North America and probably the world. The province has finished the nitty-gritty work of drafting statutes and regulations to implement the system. Oregon and Washington could do worse than to copy them, word for word, into their tax codes, then make adjustments needed to match circumstances.

Economists Have A One-Page Solution to Climate Change

National Public Radio reporter David Kestenbaum neatly distilled why economists are virtually unanimous in concluding that well-designed carbon taxes offer a win-win for the climate and the economy that no other policy can beat (June 28, 2013):

This is why economists love a carbon tax: One change to the tax code and the entire economy shifts to reduce carbon emissions. No complicated regulations. No rules for what kind of gas mileage cars have to get or what specific fraction of electricity has to come from wind or solar or renewables. That’s by and large the way we do it now.

[MIT economist John] Reilly says the current web of rules is a more complicated and more expensive way of getting the same outcome as a carbon tax. The current system “pretty much is one of the worst ways we could do it,” he says.

… Reilly brings up what is perhaps the most surprising thing about a carbon tax: If you do it right, he says, carbon tax can be nearly painless for the economy as a whole.

Besides reducing carbon emissions, a carbon tax brings in a bunch of money — it’s a tax after all. So, Reilly says, you can reduce, say, income tax to balance out the new taxes people are paying for carbon emissions. People pay more for gas, but they get to keep more of their income.

Laura D’Andrea Tyson: The Myriad Benefits of a Carbon Tax

A Bill Clinton Council of Economic Advisers chair urged carbon taxes as more cost- and climate-effective than regulations and subsidies (New York Times, June 28, 2013)

Without a [carbon] tax, the government has to rely on second-best regulations to limit carbon emissions. Facing Congressional inaction and staunch opposition to a carbon tax, this week President Obama proposed regulations on carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants using his executive authority under the Clean Air Act.

A carbon tax is also a cheaper and often more efficient way to reduce carbon emissions than subsidies for alternative fuels. Generous subsidies for biofuels have cost billions of dollars; by reducing the price of gasoline they may have perversely increased rather than decreased carbon emissions.

Other subsidies, like the production tax credit, have been successful at ramping up research, development and deployment of alternative energy technologies in recent years. Such subsidies would be even more effective in combination with a carbon tax that would make fossil fuels less price-competitive and would stimulate research on renewable and energy-saving technologies.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that even a modest carbon tax could reduce both greenhouse emissions and the federal budget deficit. A tax of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide, which would translate to about 15 cents per gallon of gasoline, would reduce emissions by 8 percent and generate up to $1.2 trillion in tax revenues over 10 years.

“[A] Carbon tax…would make polluters pay for their own pollution”

As EPA began rolling out its proposed regulations on power plants, the Washington Post Editorial Board suggested a better way (May 7, 2013):

[A] carbon tax, an elegant policy Congress could immediately take off the shelf… would make polluters pay for their own pollution, which is the best way to encourage greener thinking. It would cut emissions without overspending national wealth on grandiose central planning or command-and-control regulation. And it would raise revenue, which lawmakers could use for debt reduction, lowering other taxes, improving the social safety net or some combination. The carbon tax is one of the best ideas in Washington almost no one in Congress will talk about.

Conservative icons George Schultz and Gary Becker on why they support a Carbon Tax

Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker and Reagan-Nixon cabinet secretary George Shultz proposed to replace costly clean energy subsidies  with a far more effective revenue-neutral carbon tax. (Wall St. Journal, April 7, 2013):

[W]e should seek out the many forms of subsidy that run through the entire energy enterprise and eliminate them. In their place we propose a measure that could go a long way toward leveling the playing field: a revenue-neutral tax on carbon, a major pollutant. A carbon tax would encourage producers and consumers to shift toward energy sources that emit less carbon—such as toward gas-fired power plants and away from coal-fired plants—and generate greater demand for electric and flex-fuel cars and lesser demand for conventional gasoline-powered cars.

We argue for revenue neutrality on the grounds that this tax should be exclusively for the purpose of leveling the playing field, not for financing some other government programs or for expanding the government sector. And revenue neutrality means that it will not have fiscal drag on economic growth.

I am struck by how many liberals insist on reducing carbon emissions immediately, but, on the deficit, say there is no urgency because no interest rates rises are in sight. And I am struck by how many conservatives insist we must reduce the deficit immediately, but, on climate, say there is no urgency because, so far, temperature rise has been slight…  A carbon tax would reinforce and make both strategies easier.

In Defense of a Carbon Tax

Responding to Dave Roberts’ lament that a carbon tax can’t tackle the climate menace, the Carbon Tax Center’s James Handley and Charles Komanoff articulated the importance of an aggressively-rising tax on carbon pollution to meet the challenge. (Grist, Dec. 4, 2012; also presented as a side-by-side rebuttal of Roberts’ 10 points on CTC’s blog):

Assuming 3 percent annual inflation, a [carbon] tax rising 4 percent a year faster than inflation would take a decade to double in nominal terms, and almost two decades to double in real terms. That’s way too slow a ramp-up, considering that a carbon price of $40/ton of CO2 would add a mere 36 cents to a gallon of gasoline and 1.5 cents/kWh to the average U.S. retail electricity price.

We need a carbon tax that quickly gets to much higher rates than that. It doesn’t have to start like gangbusters; indeed, it shouldn’t, since families, businesses, and institutions all need (and deserve) time to adapt to the new reality of higher fuel and energy prices. A steady and steep ramp-up rate is far more important and beneficial than a high starting point.

These considerations make the ideal carbon tax close to that embodied in legislation introduced in 2009 by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). Larson’s carbon tax starts at $15/ton and rises each year by $10-$15, with the actual increment depending on whether emissions are being driven down fast enough. In the 10th year of a carbon tax, the CO2 price would be between $100 and $145 per ton of CO2 under the Larson bill…  the market pull (including long-term price expectations) should suffice to elicit cleantech innovation and revolution.

An Emissions Plan Conservatives Could Warm To

Former Representative Bob Inglis and former economic adviser to President Reagan, Arthur Laffer framed the conservative values supporting a carbon tax (New York Times, December 27, 2008):

We need to impose a tax on the thing we want less of (carbon dioxide) and reduce taxes on the things we want more of (income and jobs). A carbon tax would attach the national security and environmental costs to carbon-based fuels like oil, causing the market to recognize the price of these negative externalities.

The market-driven innovation that brought us the Internet and the personal computer could quickly bring us new, cleaner fuels. A carbon tax that was fully offset (with payroll or income taxes cut by a dollar amount equal to the revenues generated by the new tax) would be as bold as the threat that we face.

Conservatives do not have to agree that humans are causing climate change to recognize a sensible energy solution. All we need to assume is that burning less fossil fuels would be a good thing. Based on the current scientific consensus and the potential environmental benefits, it’s prudent to do what we can to reduce global carbon emissions. When you add the national security concerns, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels becomes a no-brainer.

Presentations, Videos, etc

From the Price Carbon Campaign – Carbon Tax Center “Pricing Carbon Conference” at Wesleyan Univ., Nov. 2010


Implementing a U.S. Carbon Tax — Challenges and Debates, Ian Parry, Adele Morris, Roberton C. Williams III,  (IMF, Routledge Explorations in Environmental Economics, 2015)

The Case for a Carbon Tax, Shi-Ling Hsu (law professor & economist), 2011.  Reviewed here.

Fuel Taxes and the Poor  (The Distributional Effects of Gasoline Taxation and Their Implications for Climate Policy), Thomas Sterner, (economist, editor), 2012

Global Carbon Pricing: We Will If You Will (2015). E-book compiling eight papers by David J. C. MacKay, Richard Cooper, Joseph Stiglitz, William Nordhaus, Martin L. Weitzman, Christian Gollier & Jean Tirole, Stéphane Dion & Éloi Laurent, Peter Cramton, Axel Ockenfels & Steven Stoft. The authors, from a variety of viewpoints and disciplines, conclude that negotiating an explicit global price on carbon pollution would unlock global climate negotiations by aligning national self-interest with the global goal of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Fiscal Policy to Mitigate Climate Change, Ian Parry, Ruud de Mootj, Michale Keen (economists, editors, IMF, 2012)

Plan B 4.0 (A realistic path to a sustainable future), Lester Brown, 2009

The Reality of Carbon Taxes in the 21st Century, Janet Milne (law professor), 2008

Storms of My Grandchildren, James Hansen (climate scientist), 2010

Opinion Polls

September 2021 poll: Record share of Americans are “alarmed” or “concerned” on climate change.

A record one-third of Americans now say they’re “alarmed” about climate change, while another one-quarter call themselves “concerned,” according to Sept 2021 polling by the Yale Program on Climate Communications.

“Today, the Alarmed (33%) outnumber the Dismissive (9%) by more than 3 to 1,” the Yale researchers declared in their latest climate polling report, Global Warming’s Six Americas, September 2021. “About six in ten Americans (59%) are either Alarmed or Concerned, while only about 2 in 10 (19%) are Doubtful or Dismissive,” the researchers noted in their summary of polling conducted last September and released on Jan. 15, 2022.

Chart from Yale-George Mason report, “Global Warming’s Six Americas, September 2021.” Link in text.

The Yale team, with their partners at George Mason University, noted that the “Alarmed” segment had replaced “Concerned” as the dominant opinion group., though “Concerned” is now firmly in second place:

When our surveys began in 2008, the Concerned were the single largest group. By 2010, they were slightly smaller, while the Cautious grew and became about equally as large. By contrast, the Alarmed were the second smallest group as recently as early 2015 (only the Disengaged were smaller), but have grown rapidly to become the largest segment of the U.S. population today. Meanwhile, the Cautious, Doubtful, and Dismissive groups have all gotten smaller in recent years.

The latest Yale-George Mason findings were first reported by Inside Climate News on Jan. 15.

December 2020 poll finds 2/3 of American voters support carbon tax.

Two-thirds of registered voters support making fossil fuel companies pay a carbon tax, according to December 2020 polling released in January 2021.

The poll, part of the roughly-annual survey compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Communications, was published on Jan. 14, 2021 under the rubric, Politics & Global Warming and reported on Jan. 15 in a New York Times story, Survey Finds Majority of Voters Support Initiatives to Fight Climate Change.

The Times story focused on the strong support expressed for solar power, efficient automobiles and clean-energy research. But the 67 percent positive score for “Requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a tax on the carbon pollution they produce, and using that revenue to reduce other taxes (such as the federal income tax) by an equal amount (i.e., a revenue-neutral carbon tax)” was notable as well.

Polling graphic may be viewed on this Yale Climate Communications page.

February 2020: Protecting the environment and tackling climate change have climbed up the list of Americans’ political priorities as economic concerns have faded, according to a new report from Pew Research Center, reports The New York Times.

For the first time in the Pew Research Center survey’s two-decade history, a majority of Americans said dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. That’s a 14 percentage point rise from four years ago. But the surge in climate concern is mostly driven by Democrats. Fewer than 25% of Republicans view climate as a top policy priority.

Graphs and most of caption above are from Feb. 20, 2020 New York Times story, Climate Change Rises as a Public Priority. But It’s More Partisan Than Ever. Here’s more:

Addressing climate change has become more urgent for Democrats in recent years, with 78 percent calling it a top policy priority in 2020. But Republicans have, by and large, remained unmoved. The partisan gap over climate change was the widest to date in 2020 and the most yawning among 18 issues covered by the survey. Protecting the environment, including air and water quality, was the second most divisive issue.

(Note: A more useful characterization than “divisive” or “partisan” may be that on climate, as on virtually all salient issues of the day, Republicans are backward and obstructionist.)

January 2020: Yale Poll reports nearly six in ten (58%) Americans are either “Alarmed” or “Concerned” about global warming. From 2014 to 2019, the proportion of “Alarmed” nearly tripled, making them (31%) the largest of the six opinion blocs.

The graph above and the following text are from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication:

Our prior research has categorized Americans into six groups, based on their climate change beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. The “Alarmed” are the most worried about global warming and the most supportive of strong action to reduce carbon pollution. In contrast, the “Dismissive” do not think global warming is happening or human-caused and strongly oppose climate action.

Our latest survey (November 2019) finds that the Alarmed segment is at an all-time high (31%). The Alarmed segment has nearly tripled in size since October 2014. Conversely, the Dismissive (10%) and Doubtful (10%) segments have each decreased over the past five years. The proportion of Americans in these two segments combined has decreased by about five percentage points since 2014.

The new opinion data are from surveys conducted during November 2019, before the onset of the apocalyptic Australia climate-driven fires that have drawn widespread attention in the U.S. and elsewhere.

For those who prefer the opinion results in snapshot form rather than time series, the Yale people included this unmistakable chart:

August 2018: Yale Maps of Public Opinion on Climate Change and Policy

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication is out with a remarkable series of maps summarizing Americans’ opinions on climate change. By county, metro area, state, congressional district or the U.S. as a whole, the Yale Climate Opinion Maps present views on a broad spectrum of climate questions and issues.

The map above is just one of several hundred that may be viewed and downloaded from the Yale web site.

Note that the link in the prior paragraphs goes to a different map than the one at right. The interactive menu lets you move among more than two dozen survey questions collated at five different geographical levels and showing either absolute percentages or deviations from the national norm.

We’re still digesting the survey methodology and findings. Come back to this page soon for more commentary, but be sure to go to the Yale site and take your own tour.

June 2017 Poll: Climate Change Now “Extremely or Very Important” to Majority of Americans

Graphic from NORC-AP poll released 6-16-2017 (annotation by CTC).

The widely respected National Opinion Research Center – Associated Press polling collaborative issued its latest poll results late Friday, June 16. While the NORC-AP press release led with Pres. Trump’s abysmal (64%) disapproval rating, a potentially more significant result was the one highlighted in the graph at left.

Fifty-three percent of people polled called climate change “extremely or very important.” This may be the first time a majority of U.S. respondents assigned climate change such a high level of concern. Indeed, climate is often viewed in political circles as a “low-salience” issue, one that people profess to care about but don’t act on via political channels. That may be changing, though it may also be that the rating was pushed up in this poll by asking respondents to specifically rate climate change (and other issues) rather than elicit, say, “the three most critical issues to you and your family.”

If this result indicates genuine public sentiment, it could translate into repudiation of climate-denying and climate-ignoring candidates in the 2018 Congressional primaries and elections. It may also portend and provoke more members of Congress to endorse the Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s Republican Climate Resolution or take similar steps diverging from G.O.P. anti-climate orthodoxy.

The full NORC-AP poll may be downloaded here. Go to p. 4 for a breakout of the climate change responses.

Earlier Polls (March 2017)

“Global Warming Concern at Three-Decade High in US,” the Gallup Organization pronounced in a March 2017 news release. “Americans are increasingly warming to the idea of a carbon tax,” reported the National Survey on Energy and Environment (NSEE) from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College, one day later.

Support for carbon taxes registered 14 points higher than in prior surveys, with strong support now at 25%, more than double its prior high. Source: NEES poll, Fall 2016 (see text).

The findings from NSEE are especially significant. First, their poll, from Fall 2016, just before the elections, concerned carbon taxing specifically rather than climate change generally. Second, this was their fifth survey with that question, going back to 2009, allowing comparisons over time. The graph at left makes the rising support crystal clear.

Here’s how the NSEE researchers summarized the poll results:

The results from the latest round of the NSEE, fielded in the weeks just prior to the November 2016 elections, show that support for carbon taxes appears to have increased significantly compared to earlier iterations of the survey. Respondents were asked four previous times over the last seven years whether they would support “a tax to reduce greenhouse gases by taxing fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.” On each of these earlier rounds, support never registered above 36%. In the Fall 2016 survey, however, half (50%) of Americans expressed support for a carbon tax, and strong support for the tax is more than twice as high as any previous round of the survey. (emphasis added)

The survey [found that] support for a carbon tax has substantially increased across the political spectrum from when the question was last asked in Spring 2014. Support this fall was 66% among Democrats (a 29 percentage point increase from Spring 2014), 30% among Republicans (a 15 percentage point increase), and 47% among Independents (a 9 percentage point increase).

The NSEE opinion researchers also found that support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax exceeded that for a generic carbon tax for which revenue use was unspecified. While this may not reflect a preference for revenue-neutrality as much as revenue salience (since the question may have tipped off the interviewees that revenues are part of the carbon tax equation), it suggests that proponents of revenue-neutral approaches such as Citizens Climate Lobby and the Climate Leadership Council have their fingers closer to the public pulse than do economists who prefer tax swaps as the means to a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax (with revenues returned as income-tax cuts) exceeds that for a carbon tax with no revenue use details, especially among independents and Republicans. Source: NSEE poll (see text).

Even newer is the poll conducted in March 2017, by Gallup, with results shown at right. Most significant, perhaps is the rise to 45% in the number of respondents who “worry a great deal about global warming.” The 45% figure is up from 37% a year ago and well above the recent low point of 25% in 2011. Worry — anxiety, fear, upset — is more easily translated into political preference and action than is mere belief.

These findings led Gallup to proclaim “global warming concern at three-decade high.”

According to Gallup, the 45% figure for “worry a great deal” about global warming is the highest ever, besting the previous top figure of 41%, recorded in 2007 — a couple of years before the hydra-headed Koch Brothers-funded front groups unleashed their “the science isn’t settled” assault on the broad scientific consensus that climate change is real, human-caused and dangerous. The lost decade will haunt humanity and Earth’s other living beings for centuries, perhaps forever; but it appears that American public opinion may have climbed back from the denialist-made abyss.

Self-declared Independents showed the biggest rise when Gallup asked, “Do you worry a great deal about global warming.”

Unfortunately, this rebound in polling has not occurred across the political spectrum, according to a companion post from Gallup, Democrats Drive Rise in Concern About Global Warming. Actually, that headline appears to be misdirected; as the Gallup graphic at left shows, the striking rise in concern (as measured in responses to the worry a great deal” question) is most evident in independents, who registered 45% on that score in March, up from 30% several years ago. Democrats who say they worry a great deal also increased, to 66% from 56%, but Republicans hardly budged, polling at just 18%, barely up from 16% a few years back.

Polls from 2016 or earlier

Three polls from early 2015 and much of 2016 heralded the very strong poll findings reported above.

In January 2015, political scientists at Stanford University and Resources for the Future who for years have been polling Americans on climate concern and policy commissioned the polling firm SSRS to interview 1,023 U.S. adults on climate-related issues. Perhaps because CTC had been beseeching the lead Stanford researcher (Jon Krosnick), or maybe because the time was finally ripe, SSRS included questions designed to take Americans’ temperature on revenue-neutral carbon taxes. (We had explained the need for carbon-tax polling to incorporate the option of returning revenues to households; otherwise, the tax would appear as all stick and no carrot.)

The most carbon-tax-positive datapoint yet.

In 2015 we called this the most carbon-tax-positive datapoint yet.

The results, released in April 2015 (pdf), showed that two-thirds of Americans support making corporations pay a price for carbon pollution, provided the revenues are redistributed, i.e., made revenue-neutral. At the time, we called the finding the most powerful indication yet that the public is warming to carbon taxation as the premier policy for combating climate change.

Those findings were buttressed by a poll of more than 1,000 voters conducted close after the 2016 elections, between Nov. 18 and Dec. 1. The “Politics and Global Warming” poll performed by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that:

“Two in three registered voters (66%) support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes (such as income tax) by an equal amount – a plan often referred to as a ‘revenue neutral carbon tax.’ 81% of Democrats, 60% of Independents, and 49% of Republicans support this policy.”

Full Yale poll here, Yale summary here, CNBC article here (“Nearly half of Republicans favor this kind of carbon tax, contrary to GOP platform”). A related publication, Climate Change in the American Mind, contains revealing details on the evolution of climate concern (but not on  carbon taxes or other possible policy responses) among Americans since 2008.

SimilarlyGallup _ U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High _ annotated _ 18 March 2016, in March 2016, nearly two-thirds (64%) of American adults told Gallup’s annual environmental poll that they were worried a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about global warming. That figure was up from 55% in March 2015 and was the highest reading since 2008, according to Gallup. (See graphic at right.)

Other results from the 2016 Gallup poll were equally striking. They showed a record-high share of Americans stating that climate change poses a threat to them and their way of life; a record number agreeing that climate change is caused primarily by human activity; and climate concern climbing across the political spectrum: on the left, center and right.

Other Opinion Polling

  • Support for action to combat global warming is growing among younger Republican-leaning voters. (Washington Post poll, November 2014.)
  • Three fourths of Republicans support expanded support for renewable energy; only about 1/3 would support a candidate who says climate science is “too unclear” for government to take action. (“Republicans, Clean Energy and Climate Change,” Clear Path Survey, 2015.)
  • 70% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans would support a carbon tax to fund research and development of renewable energy.  Slightly less, 65% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans, would support a carbon tax whose revenue was returned via a “dividend” check. (“Public Views on a Carbon Tax Depend on the Proposed Use of Revenue,” NSEE Survey, 2014.)
  • One in five respondents to a 2016 Guardian solicitation to readers named climate change as the “one issue that affects your life you wish the presidential candidates were discussing more.” While this sample was explicitly non-random, climate change’s #1 standing in the poll belies the prevailing notion that it doesn’t resonate strongly with U.S. voters. (Climate change: the missing issue of the 2016 campaign, July 5, 2016.)
  • Alas, some pollsters have yet to figure out how to pose unbiased questions about carbon taxes. In a Sept 2016 poll promoted by the Associated Press, the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the U-Chicago Energy Policy Institute asked whether people were willing to pay more for electricity to combat change (Poll: Americans Favor Slightly Higher Bills to Fight Warming). Because the question didn’t mention dividends or other ways in which the proceeds could benefit households, the results were tepid: “If the cost of fighting climate change is only an additional $1 a month, 57 percent of Americans said they would support that. But as that fee goes up, support for it plummets. At $10 a month, 39 percent were in favor and 61 percent opposed.”

Older Surveys

Polling the American Public on Climate Change (April 2013), by the Environmental & Energy Study Institute offers comprehensive data on U.S. public opinion on climate change. It deftly graphs the ups-and-downs of public opinion since 2006 as registered in half-a-dozen leading surveys, and summarizes (with links) 20 different climate polls from 2012 and 2013 — all in just four pages.

Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies, Nov. 2013) reported that:

      • 83% of Americans say the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
      • 65% say that corporations and industry, 61% say that citizens themselves, and 52% say the U.S. Congress should be doing more to address global warming.
      • 71% say global warming should be a “very high”, “high”, or “medium” priority for the president and Congress.
      • 67% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans support eliminating all subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry.

National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change (Brookings, April 2011) polled and compared the perceptions and preferences of 916 residents of the United States with those of 1214 Canadians. Brookings found that 56% of Americans supported national cap-and-trade while 46% supported higher fossil fuel taxes. In Canada, the figures were 63% for cap-and-trade and 58% for fossil fuel taxes, respectively.

Hart – U.S. Climate Task Force (December 2009) survey of 1,002 adults found that of those who supported action to address global warming, 58% supported a tax on carbon emissions that created incentives to reduce emissions and increase efficiency and provided tax refunds to individuals and households to offset the overall impact of the carbon tax. This compared to 27% who preferred a cap-and-trade option setting an overall limit on emissions, allowing companies to buy and sell permits.

The difference between the Hart results and those of the Brookings and Yale surveys may be explained in part by the more detailed explanations of the policies offered in the Hart poll. This suggests that clear articulation of the benefits of a carbon tax (and the options for revenue return) could result in majority support, at least among those willing to support action to mitigate global warming.

Our Archives

This page contains archival material bearing on efforts to advance carbon taxing or other carbon pricing at the U.S. national (federal) level.

It begins with federal legislative proposals from roughly 2008 to 2015, in reverse chronological order. Further below is material from Democratic presidential-nomination campaigning from 2019.

Unfortunately, CTC hasn’t been able to keep up with more recent (post-2015) carbon tax legislation — not that there’s been much to report in this arena. We recommend Mike Aucott’s July 2022 post , A Novel Way to Price Industrial Carbon Emissions, along with our new page about the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Although in many ways the IRA is the antithesis of carbon pricing — it aims to make clean energy cheaper rather than to make dirty (fossil) energy costlier — it was a landmark legislative achievement and may eventually open the door to federal legislation to price carbon emissions.

Federal Legislation (through 2015)

Climate Protection and Justice Act

On December 10, 2015, a day before the close of the UN climate summit in Paris, Senator (and presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders introduced the “Climate Protection and Justice Act.” His bill would impose a charge of $15 per metric ton (“tonne”) of CO2 emitted from fossil fuel combustion, with the fee taking effect in 2017. It would then rise at an average annual rate of $3.22/tonne, reaching $73 by 2035. At that point the tax trajectory would change to a percentage basis, growing by 5% annually until attaining a level of $150/tonne in 2050. Proceeds from Sanders’ proposed carbon tax would be returned to households making less than $100,000/year, a rebate of roughly $900 in 2017, rising to $1,900 in 2030. Revenue would also fund investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy.

Sanders’ press release claims his measure would reduce U.S. CO2 emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The results of seven major integrated assessment models reported by the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum suggest that a more aggressive carbon price trajectory, rising to roughly $440/ton, would be needed to accomplish this ambitious 80% reduction target by 2050, in the absence of major technological breakthroughs. Nevertheless, model results become increasingly murky as time horizons grow more distant. In any event, Senator Sanders is the first (and, as of January 2016, the sole) candidate in the 2016 presidential race to endorse an explicit and rising tax on carbon pollution.

On April 22, 2015, Earth Day, Rep. John Delaney introduced a discussion draft of his “Tax Pollution, Not Profits Act” that would establish a tax $30 per metric ton of carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide equivalent, increasing each subsequent year at 4% above inflation. Delaney’s proposal would apply revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate to 28%, provide monthly payments to low-income and middle-class households and fund job training, early retirement and health care benefits to coal workers. At an Earth Day AEI event discussing his bill, Rep. Delaney took the bold step of suggesting his proposal for a simple economy-wide carbon tax could replace the EPA Clean Power Plan.

American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act of 2014

On November 19, 2014, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), renowned for his weekly “Time To Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor, introduced the “American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act.” This bill would impose fees on both CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases, including fugitive methane from shale gas wells and coal mines, at their CO2-equivalent rates. AOCFA includes a border tax adjustment to impose equivalent climate pollution fees on imported goods from nations that have not enacted their own.

AOCFA pegs its pollution fee to U.S. EPA’s estimate of the “social cost of carbon” currently, $42/ton CO2, and would rise by only 2% annually in real terms. The Carbon Tax Center’s 7-sector price-elasticity spreadsheet model projects that the proposed starting price of $42 per ton of CO2 would quickly reduce US emissions by about 15%. But the bill’s subsequent 2% annual real price increases would barely stem the rising emission tide due to increased affluence, resulting in essentially flat emissions rather than a declining curve.

Our blog post, New Senate Bill Would Build Polluter Pays Principle into Climate Action, has more on Sen. Whitehouse’s bill.  Sen. Whitehouse and co-sponsor Brian Schatz (D-HI) re-introduced an updated version in June 2015.

Managed Carbon Price Act of 2014 

On May 28, 2014, Rep. McDermott (D-WA) introduced H.R. 4754, a direct and transparent measure to phase out free dumping of climate pollution into our atmosphere. The 21-page bill would steadily raise the cost of climate pollution, enabling investments in renewable energy and efficiency to compete effectively with continued extraction and burning of dirty fossil fuels.

McDermott’s pollution tax would start modestly at $12.50/tonne (metric ton) of CO2 and rise annually by the same amount ($12.50/tonne), reaching $125/tonne CO2 within a decade. The result, according to CTC’s carbon tax spreadsheet model, would be a one-third reduction in U.S. carbon pollution in the tax’s tenth year, vis-a-vis actual U.S. emissions in 2005. By 2030, the target year for the heralded new EPA-White House Clean Power Plan, the McDermott pollution tax would be reducing U.S. CO2 emissions by an estimated 2,051 million metric tons per year, or nearly 6 times the 355 million tonne reduction we have estimated for that year from the Clean Power Plan.

McDermott Graph

Rep. McDermott’s Managed Carbon Price Act of 2014 compared to June 2014 EPA “Clean Power” proposal

Obviously, a carbon tax like that in the McDermott bill requires an act of Congress — a far more difficult process (though administratively simpler) than the EPA plan. Nevertheless, the nearly 6-fold difference between their respective CO2 reductions is instructive, illustrating both the narrow scope of the EPA plan and the vast reach of carbon taxing.

Other Key Features of McDermott’s Managed Carbon Price Act:

  • Dividend: Returns 100% of revenue to individuals as equal (pro rata) “dividends.”
  • Other greenhouse gases: The five other major GHG’s, including methane, are taxed at their CO2 climate-damage equivalence.
  • Border Tax Adjustments: HR 4754 would tax the climate pollution of imported goods at the same rate as domestic goods, creating strong and growing incentives for other nations to tax climate pollution while protecting U.S. manufacturers from unfair competition by countries that do not tax climate pollution.

Sanders-Boxer “Climate Protection Act”

On February 14, 2013, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the Climate Protection Act. Sanders-Boxer would  impose an economy-wide tax on CO2 pollution, starting at $20/T CO2 and rising over a decade to $33/T CO2. We estimate that this price signal and trajectory would induce a 12% reduction in CO2 emissions over the course of a decade. The measure includes border tax adjustments to protect domestic industry and encourage other nations to enact their own carbon taxes. Sen. Sanders posted a rousing op-ed in the Huffington Post in July 2014 in support of his and Sen. Boxer’s bill.

The Progressive “Back to Work” Budget

The House Progressive Caucus has also included a carbon tax in its 2014 Better Off Budget proposal. The tax would start at $25/T CO2 and rise 5.6% annually, raising $1.1 trillion in revenue between 2014-2023.

Earlier Carbon Pricing Proposals

Carbon Tax Proposals:

Rep. Stark (D-CA) introduced H.R. 594 “Save Our Climate Act of 2009″ (1/15/09):

  • A carbon-content tax on fossil fuels starting at $10/ton CO2
  • Increasing by $10 every year.
  • Upstream:  Fossil fuels taxed they enter the U.S. economy (i.e., at the production or importation level).
  • Revenue use: not specified.
  • Exports credited for carbon tax.

Rep. Larson (D-CT) introduced H.R. 1337 “America’s Energy Security Trust Fund Act of 2009″ (3/5/09):

  • A carbon-content tax on fossil fuels starting at $15/T CO2.
  • Increasing by $10 each year, but in any year that EPA-identified emission targets (based on reaching 80% below 2005 emissions by 2050) are not met, the tax would increase by $15.
  • We have estimated the carbon-reducing impact of the Larson bill, using CTC’s 4-Sector Carbon Tax Impact Model. Projected emissions reduction trajectory would meet 80% by 2050.
  • Upstream (at production or importation).
  • Revenue use:
    • 1/6 of first year’s revenue for clean energy technology research (funding amount remains fixed at tax rate increases),
    • 1/12 (declining to zero over 10 years) for affected industry transition assistance,
    • All remaining revenue distributed to individuals. Returns payroll taxes via a federal income tax credit. In the first year, payroll taxes on the first $3,800 of earnings returned; amount of returned revenue rising with the tax rate. Social Security recipients receive a 10% supplement.
  • Border Adjustments: carbon equivalency fee on carbon-intensive goods imported from non-carbon taxing nations.  Exported goods credited for carbon tax.

Rep. Inglis (R- SC) introduced H.R. 2380, “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009’’ (5/13/09):

  • Upstream carbon tax.
  • Starting at $15/T CO2 rising to $100 in 30 years.
  • All revenue used to reduce payroll tax rate.  (Contrast with Larson bill which would exempt first ~ $3,800 earned from payroll tax.)
  • Tax reduction split between employer and employee.
  • Border Adjustments: equivalent tax on imports, exports credited.

Managed Market” Proposal

Rep. Doggett (D-TX) introduced H.R. 1666 “Safe Markets Development Act of 2009″ (3/23/09):

  • Cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from covered sources from 6.153 billion metric tons in 2012 to 253 million in 2050.
  • Treasury to auction 100% of allowances quarterly.
  • Board (6 members, appointed by President) to set targets for allowance prices, manages quarterly auctions by changing supply of allowances to maintain a smooth price path through 2019, oversees secondary markets (not clear how).
  • Covered entities may bank up to 5% of allowances from a calendar year.
  • Revenue use: not specified.

Cap and Trade Proposal:

Reps. Waxman (D-CA) and Markey’s (D-MA) “American Clean Energy Security Act” (7/7/09):

ACESA included a cap-and-trade title, including 2 billion tons of offsets (up to 75% international) effectively delaying domestic U.S. emissions reductions by at least a decade. The bill would have given away 85% of allowances, auctioning only 15%. (Grist summary here.)

“Cap and Dividend” Proposals:

Senators Cantwell (D- WA) and Collins (R-ME) introduced the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act (12/11/09):

While retaining a “cap” and limited trading, CLEAR would avoid the most profound flaws of the Waxman-Markey bill (passed by the House) and the Kerry-Boxer bill (which stalled in the Senate).  CLEAR would set a floor and ceiling (“collar”) on carbon allowance prices, authorize only “covered entities” to hold allowances and would not allow offsets to be used in place of allowances.  CLEAR proposed to “recycle” 75% of revenue directly to households, contrasting sharply with the cap-and-trade bills’ give-away of carbon revenue and its equivalent in free allowances to an array of special interests and energy projects.  With Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-ME) co-sponsorship, CLEAR began as a bipartisan proposal.

CLEAR purported to preclude a secondary market (or “derivatives”) in carbon allowances.  But analysts raised doubts about whether the bill could prevent large energy users  from contracting to hedge against seasonal and cyclical price swings. Also, the low price range of bill — $7 to $21 per ton of CO2 in the initial year, 2012, rising each year at approximately 6% above inflation — is not nearly sufficient to achieve the needed emissions reductions. CTC’s Carbon Tax Model suggests that this price trajectory would only lead to a 7.5% drop in U.S. CO2 emissions from 2005 levels in 2020. Instead of a substantial price signal, the bill relied heavily on subsidies for clean-energy investment which would come from the 25% of revenue not returned to households.  CLEAR’s goal was emissions reductions of 20% from a 2005 baseline by 2020. CLEAR’s price collar would have made carbon prices more predictable, closer to a carbon tax than other cap-and-trade proposals. But its $7 – 21 range was wide enough to allow significant volatility that could discourage investment in alternatives and efficiency while generating profits for speculators. Potential volatility combined with CLEAR’s low price meant that its price signal would be “noisy” and small — not the clear upwardly trending price signal that would most strongly encourage low-carbon energy.

Finally, a volatile price would have made linkage to international carbon markets (or carbon taxes) needlessly complex or even impossible.

Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced H.R. 1862 “Cap and Dividend Act of 2009″ (1/1/09):

  • CO2 Cap. Fossil fuel producers, importers surrender permits for CO2 emissions each year. Permits decline annually, leading to an 85% reduction below 2005 CO2 emissions from covered entities by 2050.
  • 100% auction of permits
  • Permits tradeable.
  • Volatility-limiting measures: Unlimited banking. Borrowing if permit prices increase more than 100%.
  • Revenue use: Funds distributed monthly in equal amounts to those with a social security number.
  • Border Adjustments: Exporters credited, importers pay “carbon equivalency fee.”

Related CTC Blog Posts and News Items:

2020 presidential campaign

Last update: June 11, 2019

Inslee demands DNC rescind its climate-debate ban

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee used his June 11 appearance on “Democracy Now” (downloadable MP3) to demand the Democratic National Committee withdraw its threat to exclude from its forums any presidential candidate who participates in non-DNC-sanctioned debates.

Inslee addressed the DNC stance at the start of his 30-minute interview with Democracy Now hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez (the segment begins at minute 13:00 of the program). The interview focuses, as does Inslee’s campaign, on climate change but it also ranges across related topics such as immigration, health care and economic development.

Biden climate plan includes a fee on carbon pollution . . . and carbon tariffs

Former V-P and current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden “proposes that Congress pass a law by 2025 to establish some form of price or tax on carbon dioxide pollution, a policy championed by most economists as the most effective way to fight climate change,” the New York Times reported on June 4.

Though Biden did not specify a dollar level for a carbon tax, and a 2025 launch date appears very far off, his climate plan, which goes far beyond a carbon price, was applauded by some activists. “He put out a comprehensive climate plan that cites the Green New Deal and names climate change as the greatest challenge facing America and the world,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, told the Times. “The pressure worked.”

The Biden plan also includes “carbon tariffs” on imported goods, according to the Times. Such a measure presumes a U.S. carbon tax, since carbon tariffs would be levied on the excess of domestic U.S. carbon taxes relative to other countries’ own carbon price. (For more on carbon tariffs see our Border Adjustments page.)

Dems: 8 out of 18 strongly for taxing carbon emissions

A year and a half out, the 2020 presidential campaign has already paid more attention to climate change than any previous election — perhaps even every previous election combined. (Bill McKibben surveyed the depressing history as part of an election preview for Politico.)

The best news of all is that voters are speaking up. In an April 2019 Monmouth University Poll of Iowa Democrats, climate change ranked second among issues of concern, albeit far behind health care. (Environmental concerns generally also ranked fairly high, which may also reflect climate concern.) The June 4 Times article cited above (re Biden) quoted a Democratic pollster proclaiming, “Climate change is an incredibly important issue for the Democratic base right now. It’s about the future, and it’s something that [President Trump] has made worse in the minds of the Democratic base.”

The candidates — well, the Democrats, anyway — are responding:

The dozen candidates shown above have pledged to campaign free of fossil fuel contributions, according to Oil Change International

Only three candidates have explicitly endorsed a carbon tax, however. Aside from Biden, Former Maryland representative John Delaney  was an original cosponsor of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018, which largely followed Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s fee-and-dividend template. And South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg made an articulate case for the same approach in an appearance on the Tonight Show (beginning at 6:15):

There’s also a plan called a carbon tax and dividend. Basically you set a price on things that put carbon into the atmosphere, but then you can rebate that back out to the American people so most of us would actually be better off if we did it. Meanwhile it would help change the economic incentives so that you’d see less activity that hurts the environment. Because the true cost is not reflected in the price of, for example, energy that comes from coal. If you were facing the true cost of it you’d have to set that price a lot higher.

Most of the field has been tiptoeing around the issue, perhaps fearing, in the words of New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, that carbon taxes “focus people’s attention on the short-terms costs of moving away from dirty energy” instead of on the benefits of clean energy.

But if they aren’t running on carbon pricing, at least some of the candidates aren’t running away from it, either. In April 2019, when the Times surveyed the announced Democratic candidates (18 at the time) on climate change, it found seven who “put their weight firmly behind a carbon tax”: Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang. (Presumably, Biden has joined the ranks.)

Five others said they were “willing to consider” a carbon tax, according to the Times: Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell.

In  May 2019, Citizens Climate Lobby posted a more detailed survey, Which 2020 candidates support carbon pricing?, with thumbnails of eight Democratic candidates as well as two possible Republican challengers to President Trump.

Sanders is said to “demote” carbon taxing

A Climatewire story in early June examined the reticence of climate hawk and erstwhile carbon tax proponent Sen. Bernie Sanders to express support for carbon taxing in 2019. Though the story, Sanders demotes carbon taxes. Here’s what it means for Dems, leads with the Vermont senator, it finds a similar reluctance across much of the Democratic field.

First, about Sanders:

His [Sanders’] 2020 presidential campaign still focuses on global warming, but gone are the regular broadsides over carbon pricing. Missing, too, is any reference to carbon taxes in the climate section of his official campaign website. Instead, Sanders has chosen to emphasize the Green New Deal when talking about climate change — a shift that underscores how much the politics of global warming have transformed in a few short years. Part of that, perhaps, is a broader decline in enthusiasm for carbon pricing among left-leaning politicians and activists.

Climatewire also notes:

Sanders’ shift in focus is striking. During the 2016 campaign, Sanders repeatedly hammered Clinton over her unwillingness to get behind a tax on carbon emissions. “I would ask you to respond. Are you in favor of a tax on carbon?” he asked in one debate. Later — after Clinton had sewn up the Democratic nomination — Sanders pressed to include carbon taxes in the party’s 2016 platform in part by appointing longtime environmentalist Bill McKibben to the drafting committee.

(We reported those 2016 developments in two posts, What the Sanders-Clinton Clash over a Carbon Tax Says about Democrats and Climate Change, and Democratic Platform Vote Was a Win for Carbon Taxes.)

The Climatewire story concludes with a curious but revealing quote from an advisor to Congressmember and Green New Deal spearhead Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I feel we’re very locked into what we can do when we lead with a carbon tax,” says Andrés Bernal. The operative word is “lead,” as the story implies by noting that Bernal’s statement “doesn’t mean [he] doesn’t see carbon taxes as part of the equation at some point.”

Even so, any “lock-in” would be in the realm of politics, not policy. A carbon tax was never going to be a stand-alone, but rather both a market-pulling force and a pay-for, as this site has pointed out practically since its founding in early 2007, most recently in the April post by CTC policy associate Bob Narus, Green New Dealers Should Embrace a Carbon Tax.

Beto O’Rourke

On April 29, former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke surprised everyone by being first out of the Democratic gate with a comprehensive climate policy. His four-part plan includes:

  • Immediate executive and regulatory actions ranging from controlling methane leakage and building efficiency standards to “clean” government procurement
  • $1.5 trillion in spending (paid for by taxes on the wealthy and corporations), leveraging an additional $3.5 trillion in non-government spending, on clean energy investments and R&D
  • A 2050 target date for net-zero emissions
  • Efforts to protect communities, agriculture and military installations from the impacts of climate change

O’Rourke doesn’t use the term “carbon tax,” but he does promise a “legally enforceable standard” for meeting the 2050 deadline, explaining:

This standard will send a clear price signal to the market to change the incentives for how we produce, consume, and invest in energy, while putting in place a mechanism that will ensure the environmental and socio-economic integrity of this endeavor — providing us with the confidence that we are moving at least as quickly as we need in order to meet a 2050 deadline.

That language seems to envision some form of carbon pricing.

Jay Inslee

On May 3, Washington Governor Jay Inslee released his “100% Clean Energy for America Plan” in several media (videoWeb page, 8-page pdf). Carbon pricing isn’t mentioned. Excerpts from the Inslee campaign’s Web page:

Governor Jay Inslee’s 100% Clean Energy for America Plan will achieve 100% clean electricity, 100% zero-emission new vehicles and 100% zero-carbon new buildings. This plan will empower America to make the entire electrical grid and every new car and building climate pollution-free, at the speed that science and public health demand.

The 100% Clean Energy for America Plan is the first major policy announcement in Governor Inslee’s Climate Mission agenda – a bold 10-year mobilization to defeat climate change and create millions of good-paying jobs building a just, innovative and inclusive clean energy future, with meaningful targets and plans for execution based on his experience as a governor. Governor Inslee will announce additional major planks of his detailed climate plan in the coming weeks.

Two weeks later came Phase 2 — Inslee’s Evergreen Economy Plan.  The 38-page plan defies easy summarization, but highlights include:

  • a Rebuild America Initiative to upgrade buildings
  • a $90 billion green bank to support clean energy projects
  • a $3 trillion infrastructure program
  • a clean manufacturing program, including federal procurement standards
  • greatly expanded clean-energy R&D
  • higher wages, benefits and union rights for clean-energy workers

All told, Inslee proposes spending $300 billion per year, leveraging another $600 billion in private investment , for a total of $9 trillion over a decade. No word yet on where he plans to get that $300 billion/year. “I have plans,” he told us at a Manhattan meet-and-greet the same day he released the proposal.

Not surprisingly, Inslee is winning the David Roberts Primary:

To put it bluntly, Inslee is writing a Green New Deal. . . . This isn’t just a campaign play, it’s a document the next Democratic president is going to want in-hand when the time comes to get to work.

Alexander Kaufman at Huffington Post also has a good summary of Inslee’s plan.

Cap and trade

A tax on carbon emissions isn’t the only way to “put a price on carbon” and provide incentives to reduce use of high-carbon fuels. A carbon cap-and-trade system is an alternative approach supported by some prominent politicians, corporations and mainstream environmental groups, despite its tilt toward the complex, indirect and opaque. Indeed those qualities may be integral to its appeal to those actors.

Cap-and-trade was the structure embodied in the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House in 2009 but died in the Senate. It’s the cornerstone of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), which began in 2005. California adopted cap-and-trade under its 2008 comprehensive AB32 carbon-emissions reduction bill and began implementing it at the start of 2013.

Cap-and-trade systems can be effective under certain conditions. The U.S. sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system instituted in the early 1990s efficiently reduced acid rain emissions from power plants. However, the scale of a national carbon trading system — it would be up to 100 times larger than that for sulfur — combined with the lack of “technical fixes” for filtering or capturing CO2, makes sulfur cap-and-trade a dubious model for carbon. Moreover, for its initial decade or more, the EU’s ETS was undermined by price volatility and gaming.

Politically, cap-and-trade has functioned as a “safe harbor” for politicians who grasp the need to price carbon emissions but cling to the need to “hide the price” to appease interest groups and/or voters. But the point of carbon emissions pricing is to raise the price of emitting carbon. Better to make the price explicit, via a tax, and protect households by making the tax revenue-neutral.

CTC regards carbon taxes as superior to carbon cap-and-trade systems for seven fundamental reasons:

  1. Carbon taxes lend predictability to energy prices, whereas cap-and-trade systems aggravate the price volatility that historically has discouraged investments in carbon-reducing energy efficiency and carbon-replacing renewable energy.
  2. Carbon taxes can be implemented more quickly than complex cap-and-trade systems.
  3. Carbon taxes are transparent and understandable, making them more likely to elicit public support than an opaque and difficult to understand cap-and-trade system. The co-author of the U.S. Senate cap-and-trade bill, then-Sen. John Kerry (later U.S. Secretary of State) told a reporter in 2009, “I don’t know what ‘cap and trade’ means. I don’t think the average American does.”
  4. Carbon taxes are hard to manipulate, whereas the complexity of cap-and-trade leaves it rife for exploitation by the financial industry and vulnerable to perverse incentives that can undermine public confidence.
  5. Carbon tax revenues can be more or less guaranteed and integrated into state or federal fiscal policy, owing to their predictability, whereas the price-volatility of cap-and-trade precludes its being counted on as a revenue source; indeed, the costs of cap-and-trade systems can easily become a hidden tax as dollars flow to market participants, lawyers and consultants.
  6. Carbon taxes are replicable across borders, since the price “metric” embodied in a carbon tax is far more universal than the quantity-reduction metric underlying cap-and-trade.
  7. Perversely, cap-and-trade discourages voluntary/individual carbon reductions, since these cause a lowering of prices of emission permits which undercuts low-carbon investments; carbon taxes are free of this unintended negative consequence.

The details

1. Carbon Taxes Lend Predictability to Energy Prices. 

A picture of volatility: European Union Allowance (EUA) closing prices. Source:

With carbon taxes ramped up through a multi-year phase-in, future energy and power prices can be predicted well ahead of time with reasonable confidence, making it possible for energy-critical decisions — everything from the design of new electricity generating plants to the purchase of the family car to the materials used in commercial airframes — to be made with full cognizance of carbon-appropriate price signals. In contrast, a cap-and-trade program will exacerbate the volatility of energy prices since the price of carbon allowances will fluctuate as weather and economic factors affect the demand for energy.

The vaunted advantage of cap-and-trade — that future levels of carbon emissions can be known ahead of time — is mostly notional, particularly if the cap-and-trade system includes a “safety-valve” for auctioning off additional carbon allowances if the price of allowances exceeds a predetermined level. And even certainty in future emission levels is of questionable value, since there is no agreed-upon trajectory of emissions for achieving climate stability and preventing disaster. The real target for which the U.S. and other countries must aim is to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible, and then more.

2. Carbon Taxes Provide Quicker Results. The taxes themselves can be designed and adopted quickly and fairly. Cap-and-trade systems, by contrast, are devilishly complex and take years to develop and implement. Thorny issues must be addressed intellectually and resolved politically: the proper level of the cap, timing, allowance allocations, certification procedures, standards for use of offsets, penalties, regional conflicts, the inevitable requests for exceptions by affected parties and a myriad of other complex issues.

3. Carbon Taxes Are Transparent. A carbon tax is easy to understand; the government simply imposes a tax per ton of carbon emitted, which is easily translated into a tax per kWh of electricity, gallon of gasoline or therm of natural gas. By contrast, the prices for carbon set under a cap-and-trade system vary with market fluctuations, making them impossible even for big business (let alone small businesses or consumers) to predict. A cap-and-trade system requires a complex and difficult to understand market structure in order to balance the many competing interests and ensure that the trading system minimizes abuse and maximizes real carbon reductions.

4. A Carbon Tax’s Simplicity Inoculates it Against the Perverse Incentives and Potential for Profiteering that Will Accompany Cap-and-Trade. In contrast to the simple and straightforward process of implementing a carbon tax, the protracted negotiations necessary to implement a cap-and-trade system offer the fossil fuels industry and other invested parties constant opportunities to shape a system that maximizes their financial self-interests as opposed to an economically efficient system that maximizes societal well-being. If allowances are allocated based on some type of baseline reflecting past pollution (as has been the practice with NOx and SO2trading programs) rather than being auctioned, polluters will have perverse incentives to maximize emissions before the cap-and-trade system goes into effect in order to “earn” those pollution rights.

5. Carbon Taxes Can Produce More Equitable Outcomes than Cap-and-Trade. As discussed on our Tax Shifting page, carbon tax revenues can be returned through dividends or used to fund progressive tax-shifting to reduce regressive payroll or sales taxes. But since cap-and-trade emission permit revenues are hard to predict, there is less possibility of rebating or tax-shifting them. Moreover, because cap-and-trade relies on market participants to determine a fair price for carbon allowances on an ongoing basis, it could easily devolve into a self-perpetuating province of lawyers, economists, lobbyists and other market participants bent on maximizing their profits on each cap-and-trade transaction.

6. Carbon taxes are replicable across borders. Costs to make a kilowatt-hour of electricity don’t differ greatly from one country to another. Likewise, the cost to obtain a gallon of  petroleum fuels. This means that the “metric” or mechanism in a carbon tax — a price to emit a ton of carbon dioxide — is pretty fungible from one country to another, in that the same carbon tax on two or two hundred different countries will raise the price of electricity or gasoline by roughly the same amount. As a result, no country gains huge advantages over another from the same level of carbon tax. Applying the same carbon tax to each is equitable and just. Not so for cap-and-trade systems. A reduction of, say, 10 percent in allowable emission permits for a poor country is more onerous than in a rich one.

7. Carbon caps will discourage voluntary/individual carbon reductions. They do so by canceling out emissions reductions resulting from personal choices. How? By reducing prices for emission permits, which stimulates more consumption by others. CTC analyst James Handley created this neat hypothetical in an essay he wrote for us in 2009:

Consider a commuter who, independent of any price signal or federal legislation, resolves to give up solo car commuting for a carpool. Under a cap system, this “exogenous” reduction in demand for carbon emitting will lead to a slightly lower emission permit price — thus stimulating some additional use of fossil fuels elsewhere. The incremental usage might be a reciprocal departure from a carpool, or cranking up the heat at home, or a return to buying bottled water rather than refilling at the tap … or any of a thousand other ways to burn carbon. The result, in the end, will be the same: virtue in one arena will be offset elsewhere, due to the price-equilibrium-seeking mechanism of the cap.

A carbon tax, in contrast, is free of such “canceling out” mechanisms. Indeed, if anything, “my” tax-induced conservation will tend to encourage “yours” by helping move societal norms away from consumption.

An Important “Official” Report

On Feb. 1, 2017, the European Commission issued a Report on the functioning of the European carbon market to the European Parliament. The dense 34-page document is a detailed and perhaps definitive examination of the EC’s Emissions Trading Scheme, at least from the EC’s standpoint. We hope to review it soon. (Readers who wade into it are asked to share their impressions with us, via

We debated carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade with Dave Roberts, in 2012.

In late 2012, then-Grist political-and-climate blogger David Roberts posted a sharp challenge to carbon-tax advocates, contending that we were, in effect, ascribing “magical” properties to carbon taxes. Roberts spelled out 10 drawbacks to carbon taxes, with this bottom line: any carbon tax legislation that could make it through Congress would likely be feeble and regressive, and perhaps even counter-productive.

Even then, David was arguably the green community’s most astute blogger, particularly on environmental politics. His qualms about pushing for a U.S. carbon tax deserved to be taken seriously.  We combined his Grist post with point-by-point responses, resulting in a classic debate, Carbon Tax on Trial: Chimera or Green Charm?.

Four Useful Resources

  1. In 2009, Robert Shapiro, chair and cofounder of the U.S. Climate Task Force and former Undersecretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs (and, since 2013, a member of CTC’s board), posted a powerful essay, Is Cap and Trade a Dead Policy Walking?, in which he predicted that “The costs and lessons of the financial crisis may effectively swamp the prospects for cap-and-trade,” rendering it “a dead policy walking.” In that event, he argued, “those who care deeply about climate change will find that a carbon tax system has become the last, reasonable policy standing.”
  2. Also in 2009, Yale Professor William D. Nordhaus critiqued cap-and-trade and articulated the essentiality of pricing carbon emissions clearly and transparently in the Economic Issues in Designing a Global Agreement on Global Warming, his keynote address to an international meeting on climate change in Copenhagen.
  3. On the other side of the argument is Emissions Trading in Practice: A Handbook on Design and Implementation, a 210-page volume published in 2016 by the World Bank that appears to compile the strongest arguments and best evidence for emissions trading systems, to date.
  4. Lessons Learned from Three Decades of Experience with Cap-and-Trade, published in November 2015 by Harvard University’s Belfer Center, is a useful retrospective on what the authors, Profs. Richard Schmalensee of MIT and Robert N. Stavins of Harvard, call six “textbook cap-and-trade systems”: the SO2 allowance trading program under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market in southern California, NOx trading in the Eastern U.S., the RGGI program among 10 northeast U.S. states, California’s AB-32 cap-and-trade system, and the European Union Emissions Trading System. The paper also briefly reviews an early precursor system, U.S. EPA’s leaded gasoline phasedown in the 1980s.


The “emissions certainty” touted by cap-and-trade supporters was put in perspective by the Financial Times: “[Carbon cap-and-trade systems] fix the amount of carbon abated, not its price. Getting the amount of emissions a little bit wrong in any year would hardly upset the global climate. But excessive volatility or unduly high prices of quotas on carbon emissions might disrupt the economy severely. [Carbon] taxes create needed certainty about prices, while markets in emission quotas [i.e., cap-and-trade systems] create unnecessary certainty about the short-term quantity of emissions.” Financial Times, Carbon Markets Create a Muddle, April 26, 2007.

In May 2007, CTC co-director Charles Komanoff examined the unsettling environmental politics behind cap-and-trade in a piece for Grist, while also debunking climate crisis denial from Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn. Environmental Defense posted a response, also in Grist, to which we replied in Grist. The full discussion is here on our blog. (In Feb. 2007, Grist also carried Environmental Defense’s argument against carbon taxing, and CTC’s rebuttal.)

That same month, during the 2007 Memorial Day weekend, the Los Angeles Times ran a superb and comprehensive (1,600 words) editorial Time for a Carbon Tax. Under the banner, “A carbon tax is the best, cheapest and most efficient way to combat cataclysmic climate change,” the editorial delivers a point-by-point refutation of arguments for settling for a carbon cap-and trade system. Here are key excerpts:

[F]or all its benefits, cap-and-trade still isn’t the most effective or efficient approach [for reducing carbon emissions]. That distinction goes to … a carbon tax. While cap-and-trade creates opportunities for cheating, leads to unpredictable fluctuations in energy prices and does nothing to offset high power costs for consumers, carbon taxes can be structured to sidestep all those problems while providing a more reliable market incentive to produce clean-energy technology.

To understand the drawbacks of cap-and-trade, one has to look not only at the successful U.S. acid rain program but the failed European Emissions Trading Scheme, the first phase of which started in January 2005. European Union members each developed emissions goals, then passed out credits to polluters. Yet for a variety of reasons, the initial cap was set so high that the polluters fell under it without making any reductions at all. The Europeans are working to improve the scheme in the next phase, but their chances of success aren’t good.

One reason is the power of lobbyists. In Europe. as in the U.S., special interests have a way of warping the political process so that, for example, a corporation generous with its campaign contributions might win an excessive number of credits. It’s also very easy in many European countries to cheat; because there aren’t strong agencies to monitor and verify emissions, companies or utilities can pretend they’re cleaner than they are.

The latter problem might be avoided in the U.S. by beefing up the Environmental Protection Agency. But there’s reason to suspect that many of the corporate interests pushing for a federal cap-and-trade program are hoping for a seat at the table when credits are passed out, and they will doubtless fudge numbers to maximize their credits; some companies stand to make a great deal of money under a trading system. Also hoping to profit, honestly or not, would be carbon traders. Large financial institutions would jump into the exchange to collect commissions on carbon trades, just as they do with crude oil and wheat. This presents opportunities for Enron-style market manipulation.

Cap-and-trade would also have a nasty effect on consumers’ power bills. Say there’s a very hot summer week in California. Utilities would have to shovel more coal to produce more juice, causing their emissions to rise sharply. To offset the carbon, they would have to buy more credits, and the heavy demand would cause credit prices to skyrocket. The utilities would then pass those costs on to their customers, meaning that power bills might vary sharply from one month to the next.

That kind of price volatility, which has been endemic to both the American and European cap-and-trade systems, doesn’t just hurt consumers. It actually discourages innovation, because in times when power demand is low, power costs are low, and there is little incentive to come up with cleaner technologies. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists prefer stable prices so they can calculate whether they can make enough money by building a solar-powered mousetrap to make up for the cost of producing it.

Carbon taxes avoid all that. A carbon tax simply imposes a tax for polluting based on the amount emitted, thus encouraging polluters to clean up and entrepreneurs to come up with alternatives. The tax is constant and predictable. It doesn’t require the creation of a new energy trading market, and it can be collected by existing state and federal agencies. It’s straightforward and much harder to manipulate by special interests than the politicized process of allocating carbon credits.

And it could be structured to be far less harmful to power consumers. While all the added costs under cap-and-trade go to companies, utilities and traders, the added costs under a carbon tax would go to the government, which could use the revenues to offset other taxes. So while consumers would pay more for energy, they might pay less income tax, or some other tax. That could greatly cushion the overall economic effect.

In a strong brief against cap-and-trade and for carbon taxing in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 3, 2008), Ralph Nader and Toby Heaps presented “three reasons why countries, such as China and India, that have traditionally resisted any notion of a common responsibility to make current polluters pay would do well to enlist in this effort” for a global carbon tax:

First, while there is no limit on the downside for missing a hard cap, with a carbon tax you just pay as you go. If a fast-growing country like China accepted an emissions cap and then overshot it, they would have to purchase carbon credits on the international market. If they missed their target by a lot, carbon credits would be scarce, and purchasing them would suck dry their foreign exchange reserves in one slurp. That’s why a carbon tax is much easier to swallow and, anyway, through the power of the price signal, it would produce the same desired result as a hard cap.

Second, administering billions of dollars of carbon credits in a cap-and-trade system in an already chaotic regulatory environment would invite a civil war between interest groups seeking billions in carbon credit handouts and the regulator holding the kitty. By contrast, a uniform tax on CO2 emissions levied at a small number of large sites would be relatively clear-cut. During the Montreal Protocol talks in the 1980s, India smartly balked at a suggestion to phase out CFCs in certain products and not in others because of the chaos that would result from the ambiguity.

Third, key people in China read our newspapers. They see the ominous clouds of protectionism under the guise of environmentalism in bills like Lieberman-Warner and they don’t want to be harmed; neither should we, given the trillions of dollars of Treasury bills they hold. Showing compliance with a harmonized carbon tax at a small number of large bottleneck points would be child’s play compared to the chaos of cap-and-trade.

More: A New York Times Nov. 2, 2007, The Real Climate Debate: To Cap or to Tax?, quoted CTC’s Charles Komanoff for the carbon tax side. Earlier that year, in an April 11, 2007 interview on the the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, CTC’s Dan Rosenblum made a compelling case for a carbon tax rather than cap-and-trade. Most recently, in January 2009, Komanoff told the Nature Network in New York City that the financial crisis as well as considerations of lead time and transparency militate strongly for taxing rather than trading carbon emissions. To view a 5-minute video of his remarks, click here.

Note: EU ETS graph comes courtesy of Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford, and is from his presentation to the Bruegel Energy and Climate Exchange, “Climate change and EU policy — why has so little been achieved?”

Is The New York Times Missing The Decade’s Most Affirmative Climate-and-Energy Story?

Alone among the major economies, Germany is moving purposefully to phase out fossil fuels while also shuttering nuclear power. Germany’s energy makeover, or “energiewende,” appears to be thriving, as evidenced by the country’s humming economy, low unemployment, robust exports, stable or declining CO2 emissions, and rapid uptake of renewables. Yet the world’s most influential newspaper casts this ambitious program as an incipient failure, even as elsewhere it decries the climate stalemate in Washington.

Here are ten packets of information worth bearing in mind as you sift through coverage in “the paper of record” of Germany’s transformative energy agenda.

1. The German economy is the world’s fourth largest ― after the United States, China and Japan. Of the three dozen highest-population countries, Germany boasts the highest per capita GDP, save for the U.S.

2. Germany has embarked upon a concerted program to transform its energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources ― wind power, electricity from sunlight, and biological-based fuels. This energy makeover — energiewende, in German — is not an overnight phenomenon but the accumulation of a dozen synergistic laws and policy directives instituted over several decades. The energiewende is now reaching critical mass, such that last year over 20% of German-produced electricity was generated from renewable sources, not even counting traditional hydro-electricity: wind, 8.4%; biomass, 6.7%; photovoltaics, 4.7%; municipal waste, 0.8% (an additional 3.2% was from water power) ― more than triple the comparable percentage for the U.S. (see table), and the highest share by far of any major economy. Perhaps most notably, Germany, with cloudier skies, a more northerly location, and 1/27th the land area, produces more than three times as much photovoltaic electricity as the United States. PV’s share in Germany’s electricity generation mix is 20 times as large as that in the U.S. [Read more…]

Data Points

U.S. carbon emissions have been dropping, thanks to a confluence of factors, led by stagnating household incomes, cheap fracked methane, booming wind power, and “peak driving.” From 2005 to 2012, releases of CO2 from fossil fuel burning fell an estimated 685 million metric tons, from 5,906 MMT to 5,221. The lion’s share of that reduction, 379 million metric tons, came in the electricity sector, as wind and gas grabbed market share from coal (3 percentage points went to wind and nearly 12 points to gas) while total power generation stayed flat.

(Emissions data come from CTC’s carbon tax spreadsheet model. Electricity market shares may be calculated from EIA data.)

The rush to fuel efficiency is more of a trickle.

The second largest emissions source, which I call “Personal Ground Travel” (driving) to distinguish it from goods movement (mostly by trucks), shrank only modestly, from 1,246 MMT to 1,184, a drop of just 62 million metric tons, or 5%. So imagine my surprise when I read in a New York Times editorial last month that “increased fuel efficiency helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions from passenger cars by 16 percent from 2005 to 2012.”

That August 10 editorial, A Clean-Car Boom, was nearly euphoric. Here’s its lede:

In a welcome development for the planet, the cars on American streets are becoming much more climate-friendly much sooner than many had expected. Consumers are increasingly buying fuel-efficient hybrid and electric vehicles thanks to breakthrough innovations and supportive government policies.

True enough about consumers buying … not so the earlier part about emissions dropping by 16%. In fact, in the few seconds it took to follow the editorial’s link, it became clear that the 16% passenger-car reduction applies just to new autos rather than the entire sector, which necessarily takes many years to “turn over” to more-efficient models. What also became clear, in back-and-forth e-mails w/ the editorial board, was that the Times wasn’t going to publish a correction clarifying that CO2 emissions from cars fell just 5% from 2005 to 2012, not 16%.

“I assume [the writer of the editorial] meant new models, not entire existing fleets and that is the way readers would see it,” an editor advised me in an e-mail. “I will have to check with EPA and DOT,” he added, ignoring my offer to lead him to the numbers.

Would readers “see it” as the editor assumed? Would they get that CO2 reductions from driving were only inching along rather than galloping as the Times editorial suggested? I’m not sure. As I wrote to the editor in my final e-mail:

Why does this matter (apart from getting numbers right, generally)? A certain complacency has set in about heartening/surprising progress in cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, especially in mainstream environmentalist thought. Indeed, this complacency may help explain how the [editorial] writer slipped into his/her error. More importantly, it has implications for policy/politics around climate, carbon taxing, “radical” vs. “incremental” approaches, etc.

The implications I had in mind are obvious but worth saying: If you “learn” that regulations have already eliminated one-sixth of carbon emissions from driving in just seven years, you’ll be more inclined to trust that further application of regulations can get induce more reductions. And if regulations are up to the task, the need to take on the tougher job of enacting a meaningful carbon tax dissipates.

Would that were so. But regulations aren’t up to the task of eliminating 80% or more of U.S. CO2 emissions. They’re intrinsically piecemeal, long lead-time, backward-casting, and suboptimizing. They also produce no revenue, thus giving them zero salience in any possible budget deal. As I wrote here late last year, only a carbon tax can

broadcast …  a clear price signal to begin shifting millions of decisions toward less energy and emissions — big decisions that determine design of vehicles and transport and that set the pace and nature of investment in low- and non-carbon energy; as well as the full gamut of household-level decisions …  Almost as importantly, a robust carbon tax changes the culture by broadening the definition of pollution and valorizing conserving behaviors with monetary rewards.

Or, as CTC’s Washington rep, James Handley, put it, in an early-2012 post dissecting putative EPA regulations of CO2 emissions from power plants, “EPA regulations might, optimistically, achieve significant near-term reductions, albeit at a higher cost than a CO2 pollution pricing system. But more importantly, those regulations can’t be expected to induce further innovation.”

Indeed, James’s post drew on work by noted Resources for the Future economist Dallas Burtraw to conclude that in the near term, EPA regulation of greenhouse gases was unlikely to reduce carbon pollution any more than a small carbon tax, say, one starting at $10/ton of CO2 and rising by just $3.50/ton per year. “Moreover,” James noted, “it’s not clear how much further EPA regulation could reduce emissions after 2020. That’s because regulations are essentially static and do little to induce innovation or to reduce fossil fuel demand via conservation.”

With or without a correction by the Times, there’s no getting around the need for a robustly rising carbon tax.

* * * * *

Separately, we call your attention to a new report by prolific automobile researcher Michael Sivak and two colleagues at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, “A Survey of Driver Opinion About Carbon Capture in Vehicles.” Using an opinion survey, the three inferred that Americans “appeared to be willing to pay about $100 for a 20% reduction in [their car’s] carbon dioxide emissions.” Applying an average 25 mpg fuel economy for newly purchased vehicles, an annual distance driven per vehicle of 11,000 miles, and a typical 11-year vehicle life, that 20% reduction equates to 9.5 tons of CO2. A willingness to pay $100 to eliminate 9.5 tons equates to just $10-$11 per ton of CO2 removed, suggesting that relying on Americans’ altruism isn’t going to do the heavy lifting of reducing carbon emissions.

Photo: Veee Man, via Flickr.