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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Record temps + cheap gas = Time for carbon tax

Even the U.S. Senate now is on record as acknowledging global warming exists. Now is the time to pursue a reasonable tax on carbon that would require polluters to pay a fair cost and raise money to start addressing the long-term damage.
Even the U.S. Senate now is on record as acknowledging global warming exists. Now is the time to pursue a reasonable tax on carbon that would require polluters to pay a fair cost and raise money to start addressing the long-term damage.
Published Jan. 23, 2015

The trend lines could not be clearer. Earth's temperature in 2014 was the highest ever recorded, and gasoline prices are below $2 a gallon and their lowest in years. Even the U.S. Senate now is on record as acknowledging global warming exists. Now is the time to pursue a reasonable tax on carbon that would require polluters to pay a fair cost and raise money to start addressing the long-term damage.

Because the price of crude oil is less than half of what it was a year ago, a carbon tax could be levied without harming the economy. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers figures that a $25-a-ton tax on carbon would raise more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years but would increase gasoline prices by only 25 cents a gallon. Gas in Tampa Bay has dropped to $1.97 a gallon; add a quarter and it would still be more than a dollar cheaper than it was a year ago. That's not an undue burden.

A carbon tax should apply to any burning of fossil fuels, whether it is to power a factory, make electricity or drive a car. If an industrial process releases carbon dioxide, it should be taxed because pollution has a price. Cap-and-trade systems like one that was approved by the U.S. House but died in the Senate early in President Barack Obama's first term are unnecessarily complex. A carbon tax is straightforward: You pollute, you pay.

Fast-dropping energy prices give Congress a unique opportunity to get energy policy right. Instead of a hodge-podge system of subsidies and guarantees such as the ones that for years rewarded corn farmers for raising ethanol crops that couldn't compete in the marketplace, Congress could tax carbon appropriately and let the free market decide winners and losers based on the actual cost of energy — including the pollution produced.

Don't expect Congress to seize the moment. The Senate finally agreed last week that climate change is real, then immediately defeated a measure that said people are causing it. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who called climate change a hoax until a few days ago, now chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee. His new position, which is just as wrongheaded as his last one: "Man can't change the climate."

This obfuscation is why climatologists, who overwhelmingly agree on the human role in climate change, need to keep pushing. Republicans, who eagerly look to free markets for the answer in so many other cases, should do so here. At a minimum, they could at least pursue a carbon tax that is revenue neutral. Congressional inaction is out of step with American views; a recent AP-NORC poll showed that 68 percent of Americans believe global warming is a moderately to extremely serious problem; only 25 percent think it isn't.

The numbers released a few days ago by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that 2014 was the hottest year ever measured, based on records dating back 135 years, and that nine of the 10 hottest years have all occurred since 2000. The trend lines are unmistakable, and the effects are already being felt in Florida, which is uniquely vulnerable to the rising seas, ocean acidification and harsher hurricanes that climate change will spawn.

The exact level of a carbon tax could be worked out. How should the money be used? Summers, the former Treasury secretary, suggests half of it — an annual $50 billion — could be invested in infrastructure and the other half could go toward pro-work tax credits. Those seem like reasonable starting points: Investing in the future and rewarding lower-income people for working.

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The trend lines are clear and the timing is right for a carbon tax.

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