Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Top Climate Scientist: Tax Fossil Fuels to Save Younger Generations' Future

Top Climate Scientist: Tax Fossil Fuels to Save Younger Generations' Future, 4 October 2016, by Nadia Prupis

This article summarizes a paper recently published by James Hansen and eleven others (original paper at  Hansen (a well-known climate scientist and activist) and his co-authors are concerned with the long view: the consequences of our present climate and energy policies for future generations.  The goal of holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C is rapidly slipping out of our grasp, and the Paris climate accords are "unlikely to bring about substantial change", according to Hansen.  As a result, "negative emissions" technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere will likely need to be employed at a very large scale in the future to keep the climate within safe bounds.  These technologies are unproven, however, and even if it is possible to deploy them on a sufficiently large scale, they will likely be extraordinarily expensive.  Hansen's recommendation, to deal with this situation, is to "make the price of fossil fuels honest" – "stop subsidizing them", and "make them pay their cost to society", so that we can "phase out carbon emissions over the next few decades."

My take: These ideas are not new, but they are clearly stated here, which makes this article (and the paper by Hansen et al.) a welcome contribution.  Our actions now create obligations and debts for future generations; if they want to keep the climate within historical bounds, they will have to take drastic, expensive action, and the longer we delay now, the more drastic and expensive that future action will have to be.  Many climate projections now assume that "negative emissions" technologies will exist in the future that will offset our future emissions (the Paris accords assume this, for example), but of course those technologies do not presently exist, and our best estimate is that they will cost hundreds of trillions of dollars to implement in the future.  The fact that we do not presently have a tax on carbon emissions should properly be viewed as a subsidy; it means that fossil fuel prices are not "honest", in that they do not reflect the negative consequences that burning of fossil fuels has for everyone on the planet (a "negative externality", in economic jargon).  Instituting a carbon tax is therefore really removing a subsidy and creating a level playing field among energy technologies – something that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians should all be able to agree makes sense.  The alternative is to pass on an enormous problem to our children and our grandchildren – a problem so large that it will define their entire world.