by Barrett Seaman
A trio of energy experts and environmental activists conducted a panel discussion June 29 at the Warner Library on a carbon tax as a means of discouraging the use of fossil fuels to produce energy. Charles Komanoff, founder and director of the Carbon Tax Center, was joined by Iona Lutey, Northeast Regional Coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), and Sara Hsu, Associate Professor of Economics, SUNY New Paltz. Sustainable Westchester and Westchester Power and a host of other local groups sponsored the program.
The idea of levying a carbon tax as a way to slow the rate of global warming has been around for years but until this year has not been the favored approach. Embedded in both the Kyoto Protocols and the Paris Climate Accord, “cap and trade” is designed to reduce emissions by setting a limit on the total amount of emissions an industry or country can release during a fixed time period. Individual countries can exceed their cap through a system of trade-offs with other countries whose emissions fall below their cap—essentially a way to buy and sell the right to pollute. Cap and trade is complicated, however. It requires long lead-times and is difficult to enforce, particularly on a global basis.
In the U.S, taxing carbon has traditionally been unpopular with Democrats, who prefer regulation and argue that the tax hits low-income groups disproportionally. Republicans, many skeptical of climate change anyway, don’t like it because it’s a tax.
Recently, however, the carbon tax got a boost when two well-respected Reagan cabinet members, George P. Schultz and James A. Baker III, called for a tax of $40-per-ton and rising over time on carbon emissions as a replacement for current regulations, with revenues kicking back to taxpayers (about $2,000 for a family of four). Then, just last month, Exxon Mobil Corp., British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell and Total announced their endorsement of a carbon tax.
Many environmental activists are suspicious of Big Oil’s motivation, fearing it is intended to divide them, and that the companies can afford to give the idea lip service when the likelihood of Trump administration support is nil. However, panel members contended that Trump’s opposition may no longer be enough to counter what they say is steadily growing public support.
In his lead-off presentation, Komanoffmade the broad case for a carbon tax as part of a larger plan to curb climate change. Carbon emissions have been falling in recent years, in part because electricity consumption has been falling and in part because electricity is coming from cleaner sources, he said. But while CO2 emissions have dropped, methane has not. His approach would be to de-subsidize coal, oil and gas and transfer those subsidies to clean energy sources, like wind and solar. A carbon tax along the lines of the Baker/Schultz proposal, he argued, would allow the U.S. to keep its Paris Climate Accord pledges regardless of Trump’s opposition. And given the current low prices for crude oil, such a tax would be more palatable than when energy costs are high.
Iona Lutey, a product of Bronxville Schools and Colgate University, was a community organizer before committing herself fully to CCL. She asserted that the tax would reduce CO2 emissions by 31% over 10 years and 50% over 20 years, and that the “dividend” returned to taxpayers would create 2.8 million new jobs over 20 years and add $1.375 trillion to the nation’s economy.
Addressing the political prospects for adoption of a carbon tax, Lutey argued that the combination of increasingly favorable public opinion, a lengthening list of corporations and business lobbies endorsing it and evidence that Republican members of Congress are beginning to feel the heat are reasons for optimism. She then spelled out ways individual citizens can help—through letter-writing pressuring their legislators and supporting the CCL in its multi-faceted lobbying efforts.
Hsu spoke specifically in favor of a carbon tax for the State of New York, calling it “essential at this point in time, as climate change is already here and our federal government is doing very little about it.”
The tax her group, Green Education and Legal Fund (www.gelfny.org), advocates would start at $35 a ton and increase $15 a ton-per-year. Sixty percent of the revenues would go back to low- and moderate-income consumers. The remaining 40% would support clean energy and mass transit expansion. Legislation to this effect is before the State Senate and Assembly. Hsu noted that Oregon, Massachusetts, Vermont. Rhode Island, Connecticut and Washington State are presently considering carbon taxes.
Dan Welsh, representing Sustainable Westchester, which organized the event, did not specifically endorse a carbon tax but says he feels his organization can contribute by “facilitating and encouraging” any discussion that would help promote the adoption of solar energy, electric vehicles and other clean energy components. “We are just helping with the liquidity of the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” he said.