Paul Sakuma / Associated Press file, 2010

A tanker truck passes the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond. A pair of writers argue that a carbon tax would be the easiest, fairest way to reduce carbon emissions that have been scientifically linked to global climate change.

Viewpoints: Climate debate is settled; carbon tax is vital

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2013 - 8:13 am

Last month, a team of international citizen scientist volunteers published the results of a survey of more than 12,000 peer- reviewed climate science papers published over the past two decades. They found that among climate research that takes a position on what's causing global warming, 97 percent agree that humans are responsible. Surprisingly, the survey found that the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming had already formed in the early 1990s, and has steadily grown stronger since then.

The fossil fuel industry has also been engaged in a misinformation campaign to hide the scientific consensus from the public since the early 1990s. In 1991, Western Fuels Association launched a $510,000 campaign to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)" in the public perception. A memo from communications strategist Frank Luntz leaked in 2002 advised Republicans "to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

The campaign has been successful, with only 45 percent of Americans believing that scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey. This "consensus gap," as we call it, has acted to undermine public support for taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Several recent studies have shown that as public awareness of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming grows, support for action to solve the problem grows along with it.

Now that the science is settled that humans are causing global warming, we need to settle on a policy to solve the problem. Right now, the damage done by American carbon emissions via climate change is not reflected in the price of the fossil fuel products they come from. We have established a price on carbon emissions in California, but we need the federal government to follow our example.

One of the most effective solutions – a revenue-neutral carbon tax – is being championed by conservative George Shultz. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Shultz and Hoover Institution colleague Gary Becker said that energy producers "should bear the full costs of the use of the energy they provide. Most of these costs are included in what it takes to produce the energy in the first place, but they vary greatly in the price imposed on society by the pollution they emit and its impact on human health and well-being, the air we breathe and the climate we create. We should identify these costs and see that they are attributed to the form of energy that causes them."

Shultz and Becker are not the only conservatives singing the praises of a revenue-neutral carbon tax that returns proceeds to households. Supporters also include former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, Reagan economic adviser Art Laffer, and Bush economist Greg Mankiw.

Why do conservatives support a revenue-neutral carbon tax? Because it utilizes the free market to drive the transition to clean energy. Putting a tax on carbon corrects the distortion in the market that gives fossil fuels an unfair advantage over clean energy. Once that distortion is corrected – by making fossil fuels accountable for their costs to society – clean tech becomes the more attractive option for generating energy.

Republicans in Congress should have good reason to embrace this solution.

Lacking congressional action, President Barack Obama will use Environmental Protection Agency regulations to rein in carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants, regulatory authority the Supreme Court has already sanctioned. For the GOP, the choice between EPA regulations or a free-market approach to cut carbon should be a no-brainer.

Recent news about the level of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere indicates Congress has little time left to delay action on climate change.

During the month of May, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii – exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). The last time CO 2 exceeded 400 ppm, some 3 million years ago, sea levels were 50 feet higher and humans did not exist.

Unless we begin to reduce emissions soon, CO 2 will exceed 450 ppm within a couple of decades, jeopardizing any chance we have of containing global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the warming considered, if not safe, at least adaptable.

With the latest study showing 97 percent certainty about climate change being caused by human activity, we're 100 percent certain that Congress needs to pass serious climate legislation such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Dana Nuccitelli, a resident of West Sacramento, is an environmental scientist, climate blogger for The Guardian and SkepticalScience.com, and an author of the study finding 97 percent consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens Climate Lobby, an advocacy organization based in San Diego.

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