Several months ago, I attended a talk by a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council who demonstrated one of the debating techniques that has always frustrated me – he categorically stated that “no one” wants a carbon tax but that it was “politically possible” to pass a cap and trade bill. The reason such a technique bothers me is that it arrogantly assumes the ability to set the agenda before the debate even starts. Besides that, it marginalizes my own position by calling me “no one”, since I am support a flat tax on atmospheric pollution – which can be represented by taxing the carbon content of fossil fuels.
However, I do not favor a carbon tax as a way to put money into the hands of politicians or their generous donors. The tax should be more of a “tipping fee” to pay the owners of the atmosphere for the service of using that atmosphere as a waste dump for the residues of burning fossil fuels.
One of the founding principles of the United States from our Declaration of Independence is the following statement:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That same sentiment is embodied in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations:
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Since one of the most fundamental parts of living is the act of breathing, it seems logical to believe that all persons are born with an equal share of ownership in our common atmosphere. Therefore, the proceeds from pollution taxes collected on dumping fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere should be distributed (returned) equally to all people.
Under such a scheme, the more one emits, the more one pays. People who are frugal with their energy consumption or who get their energy from sources that do not emit would not pay very much. In fact, they would find extra money in their pockets every month. They could choose what to do with that money, including spending it, saving it or investing it. There would be no need for the creation of a new bureaucracy; the US already has a service that regularly collects and returns money to people.
Adding a predictable cost to the consumption of carbon based fuels would shift the playing field to provide some competitive advantage for energy sources that do not need to use the atmosphere as a waste dump, including atomic technologies that already internalize the costs of the waste that they produce. It is my humble, politically naive position that a scheme like the one I have proposed above could result in a real climate bill that can gain the overwhelming support that would be needed if the US has any hope of ratifying an international treaty dealing with climate and energy consumption issues. Remember – one needs a 2/3’s majority in the Senate (67 votes) in order to ratify any treaty.
Several other thinkers are trying to find a way to gain the support of enough conservative Republicans while maintaining the support of the necessary Democrats to pass effective climate legislation. Marc Gunther at TheEnergyCollective.com wonders how How Republicans can save the climate bill, and initially proposed that stronger support for nuclear energy could do the trick. However, in the comment thread he mentioned a discussion with Senator Lamar Alexander that made him reconsider that idea as being insufficient.
On the Wall St. Journal’s Environmental Capital blog Keith Johnson proposes a similar idea in his post titled Nuclear Option: The Kerry-Boxer Bill and Nuclear Energy. However, my impression is that adding strong support directed at increasing the role of nuclear energy would result in the loss of a number of key votes.
I may be a bit outside of the nuclear advocate mainstream here, but I believe that there is no need to add provisions into law that result in a direct flow of money from taxpayers to nuclear project investors. Subtitle C – Nuclear and Advanced Technologies of the current Boxer-Kerry bill (Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act) does much of what I think needs to be done, by simply stating the truth about the efficacy of nuclear energy and its ability to reliably produce valuable power without polluting the environment. If we could match the words with some tangible, logical cost signals that allow the market to choose a product with superior characteristics, smart money will move in the right direction and provide all of the support that nuclear energy really needs to make a huge contribution to our shared prosperity.