It’s familiar dilemma: after you’ve changed out your old incandescent light bulbs, got serious about recycling, started eating local farm produce, switched to reusable shopping bags, maybe even bought a Prius, one comes to the uncomfortable question: How are we going to make a real dent in the voracious global carbon appetite? How, in other words, can we make more than symbolic progress towards getting global climate change in check?
The question is urgent, possibly the most urgent of our time. And there are many parts to its answer, but they all inevitably boil down to decisive action at the highest levels of state, national, and international government. And as we look forward, in matter of a few hundred days, the long-overdue departure of the current administration in Washington may at last provide a chance for progress.
But how to proceed? What can an ordinary citizen do? If it all seems mind-numbingly wonkish and impossible to grasp (Cap and trade? carbon credits? What the . . ?), do not despair. There is hope. And it comes in the form of an extremely concise and clear little book called Climate Solutions, by Peter Barnes (Chelsea Green Publishing). This is undoubtedly the best summary I have seen of the complex, byzantine economic and geopolitical context of the problem of climate change and how we as citizens — as the stewards of our various governments — might approach it. I highly recommend the book.
Most proposed legislation to reduce global warming calls for a cap-and-trade system, in which a “cap” (limit) is set on the total amount of carbon that can be released to the atmosphere, the cap declines over time, and tradable permits for emitting this carbon are issued to allow the market to determine how the reductions take place. The crucial issues are how the permits are issued (whether simply given free to big utility companies, or auctioned off), who gets the money from sales of the permits (the government or the citizenry, as administered through a trust fund), and whether there is a “safety valve” that basically allows the whole thing to be jettisoned if it gets too inconvenient.
Barnes argues cogently for a “cap-and-dividend” system, in which permits are auctioned off, the proceeds go to a “sky trust” that pays dividends to citizens (rather than the government or utility company shareholders) and/or is used for projects that are clearly in the public interest, no carbon offsets are allowed to serve as fudge factors, and there are no safety valves.
In a strikingly unusual and altruistic move, the author and publisher claim that they are actually making a FREE PDF copy of the book available to maximize its practical impact. That is supposed to be at www.onthecommons.org. I couldn’t find the free PDF of the book there, but there is other interesting stuff which gets at the sam material, including free citizen’s guides to the “cap and dividend” model that Barnes advocates. If you can afford the modest price of this book, I encourage you to buy it, read it, loan it to as many friends as possible to support the effort that went into it, and then act on it by voting and organizing. If you can’t afford it, download the free stuff. We will all need to be on our toes about this as the issue actually comes to serious discussion — and a vote — in the fresh air of the next administration.
Some key quotes:
“When people don’t pay the full cost of what they’re doing, but instead transfer costs to others, economists call this a ‘market failure’. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, has said that climate change is ‘the biggest market failure the world has ever seen.’”
“The big question in climate policy is whether polluters should pay pollutees, or vice versa. If carbon permits are given free to historical polluters, energy prices will rise and we’ll all pay more to whoever gets the permits. That wealth transfer — which over time could exceed a trillion dollars — will flow straight from our pockets to the shareholders of private companies. It will be less visible than tax-funded transfers, but a huge shift of wealth nonetheless.”
“Fossil fuels are unique. There’s no other source of energy that’s as concentrated and convenient as fossil fuels. This means that we can’t simply replace fossil fuels with something else. We also have to use less energy, and use it smarter.”
“The big problem with a carbon tax is that it has to be very high to decrease pollution sufficiently. When people are addicted to a substance or a source of energy, they’re willing to pay a lot more before they stop using it . . . A carbon tax is an economist’s dream but a politician’s nightmare. The economist imagines that politicians will keep raising the tax until it reduces pollution sufficiently to solve the climate crisis. That assumes heroic behavior by a majority of Congress members for several decades, an assumption not grounded in reality.”
“In cap-and-dividend, permits are also sold, not given away free. However, the revenue doesn’t go to the government — it comes back in the form of equal dividends to all of us who pay it. This revenue recycling system is sometimes referred to as a sky trust.”
“Several bills pending in Congress address the market failure that causes climate change. However, most of them replicate errors of the European trading system: They give free permits to historic polluters, cap carbon downstream rather than as it enters the economy, allow offsets and safety valves, and offer little protection to consumers and businesses.”
And finally, in a nutshell:
* Auction, don’t give away, permits.
* Cap all carbon entering the economy.
* Protect consumers and manufacturers.
* Don’t count offsets against permits.”
The devil is in the details, of course, but a surprising depth of the details are in this little book and it is written for regular people, rather than hard-core policy wonks. Power to the people!