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Donald Marron

What will it take to tax carbon?

Recent efforts at climate change legislation died in the Senate recently. Could reaching out to budget hawks help?

By Guest blogger / October 11, 2010

In this Jan. 10, 2009 file photo, a flock of geese fly past a smokestack at the Jeffery Energy Center coal power plant near Emmitt, Kan. Utilities from South Carolina to Washington are building dozens of old-style coal plants that will cement the industry's standing as the largest industrial source of climate-changing gases for years to come. The construction illustrates how the environmental costs of carbon dioxide pollution are still not borne by the generators of that pollution. When will America see a carbon tax?

Charlie Riedel / AP / File

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Climate change legislation died an ignominious death in the Senate earlier this year. If you’d like to understand why, check out Ryan Lizza’s autopsy of the effort in the latest New Yorker. Lizza documents how the “tripartisan” trio of John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham came up short in their effort to craft a 60-vote coalition in the Senate. Among the bumps along the way:

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  • On March 31, President Obama announced a dramatic expansion in offshore waters open for oil and natural gas drilling. In so doing, he gave away one of the sweeteners that the trio was hoping to use to attract pro-drilling senators.
  • On April 15, Fox News reported that, according to “senior administration officials”, the White House was opposing efforts by Senator Graham to increase gasoline taxes. That claim was perverse–the bill didn’t include higher gasoline taxes and Graham certainly wasn’t pushing them–but not surprisingly it created problems for Graham back home.

Lizza’s article is rich with such anecdotes, but it’s the larger picture I’d like to emphasize. Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham adopted a traditional approach to building a Senate coalition. They identified their main goal–comprehensive climate change limits–and then started negotiating with individual Senators and special interests to see how they could get to 60 votes. Nuclear power, electric utilities, oil refiners, home heating oil, even cod fisherman all make an appearance at the bargaining table. But it’s not clear that such horse-trading could ever yield 60 votes.

This failure makes me wonder whether the traditional approach will ever generate a substantive climate bill. I suppose that’s still possible, particularly if the EPA begins to implement a burdensome regulatory approach to limiting carbon emissions. That might bring affected industries running back to the table.

But I would like to suggest another strategy: Perhaps the environmental community should make common cause with the budget worrywarts. In principle, a carbon tax is a powerful two-birds-with-one-stone policy: it cuts carbon emissions and raises money to finance the government. (This is equally true of a cap-and-trade approach in which the government auctions allowances and keeps the proceeds.) Perhaps there’s a future 60-vote coalition that would favor those outcomes even if various energy interests would be opposed?

Such a coalition is unthinkable today. Opposition to energy taxes runs deep, as Senator Graham experienced. But fiscal concerns will continue to grow in coming years, and spending reductions may not be enough to get rising debts under control. If so, maybe we’ll see a day in which a partnership of the greens and the green eyeshades will take a stab at a carbon tax.

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