'Utter failure.' How carbon tax lost its allure
Greenwire, Feb. 12). Top Democrats who once backed cap and trade are now reaching for fixes that use regulations and financial incentives (E&E Daily, Jan. 29). And many of the Democrats running for president are lined up behind command-and-control regulation and massive government investment — the Green New Deal they say is required to deliver the carbon reductions that science demands. Compare that to a decade ago, when all serious legislative responses to global warming were built around a carbon price. It reached a zenith in 2009, when the House passed an economywide cap-and-trade bill sponsored by former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). It drew the support of just six Republicans, but it was unquestionably the cornerstone of Democratic climate policy. Until it failed the next year. The Senate never voted on the climate bill in 2010 because of opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats. By then, a cascade of consequences had been triggered by the legislative effort. A Republican landslide in the midterms stripped Democrats of power in the House. And President Obama, who championed climate action, fell into a long silence on the issue. The cloud of Waxman-Markey still lingered in 2016. Hillary Clinton chose to avoid all talk of pricing carbon during her run for president (Climatewire, June 3, 2019). Her liberal challenger for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), distinguished himself by continuing to tout his own preferred policy — a carbon tax. But now, Sanders and Markey, who won a Senate seat in 2014, have become the face of the Green New Deal. They extoll the virtues of deep, economywide decarbonization using a massive federal program with no explicit funding source. Part of this might come down to the wave of anti-capitalist sentiment that has buoyed Sanders’ 2020 presidential candidacy and ushered once-fringe proposals like “Medicare for All” into the mainstream. Sanders has cast his $16 trillion Green New Deal proposal as an overhaul of the economy and “our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future.” What have fallen by the wayside are carbon pricing proposals. “I think it’s in the context of decades of the economy not working for ordinary people and benefiting the wealthiest and large corporations,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, communications director for the youth-based Sunrise Movement, which mobilized around the Green New Deal and has endorsed Sanders for president. “And it’s also in the context of decades of utter failure on climate change. And now we’re staring down a very dark future.” O’Hanlon and other backers of the Green New Deal say climate change has progressed to a point where carbon pricing alone can no longer solve it. “This comes from the realization that fully tackling the problem of climate change requires an economywide mobilization of a scale that is not possible through market means alone,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, the former chief of staff to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat who originated the proposal. Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, said: “A carbon price or a market price that is high enough to actually create real change is going to be highly unpopular politically.” The United Nations’ climate science panel estimated in 2018 that a carbon price would need to be at least $135 a ton in 2030 to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s higher than the prices contemplated by most U.S. policy proposals. And measures that are designed to garner bipartisan support usually pair modest prices with language limiting or eliminating regulatory authorities that environmentalist say could be used to make additional greenhouse gas reductions. And most carbon tax plans would refund revenue to the public rather than invest in green infrastructure. Pica said the environmental community had erred in presenting carbon pricing as a “silver bullet” for two decades. He noted that Obama’s most effective climate move was to enact economic recovery legislation early in his first term that channeled billions of dollars to renewable energy, efficiency and grid modernization. “Why depend on the markets and private capital to make the changes we need when we have investment levers and regulatory levers that are just as potent at reducing emissions?” Pica said.