A Sweltering Planet’s Agenda: Washington Post Editorial Board Calls For Carbon Tax

Okay, a carbon tax is a pretty obvious choice if one cares at all about science, humanity, and the national debt. Still, it’s nice to see even a centrist group like the Washington Post editorial board endorse it.

In a piece headlined, “A sweltering planet’s agenda,” they explain that 2012 “offers a vision of what will happen more often on a planet that is heating — slowly and fitfully, not every year warmer than the last, but inexorably.” They note that lack of absolute certainty as to just how bad global warming will be is no excuse for inaction. Quite the reverse:

That’s an argument not for doing nothing but for managing the risks, spending now to avoid the likelihood of much greater costs later, as any good business would do in the face of certain threats of uncertain magnitude.

The smartest hedge would be a national carbon tax. It would marshal the market’s power to wring carbon out of the economy, putting decisions about the direction of energy and manufacturing in the hands of consumers and businesses that meet their demands, not Congress and interest groups that lobby lawmakers. When people must pay something for their pollution, they pollute less and invest in cleaner alternatives. A carbon tax would provide more certainty to industry and investors who currently can only guess at what climate policy will look like year to year.

But, given the dim debate on global warming in Congress, another consequence of a carbon tax might be more appealing to policymakers: revenue. Resources for the Future estimates that a tax set at $25 per ton of carbon dioxide would raise $125 billion annually — more than would be saved by eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction. Even if much of that were rebated to ensure that low-income households weren’t unduly hurt — the right policy — a sizable chunk would be left to shrink the deficit or ease the major tax reform that Washington’s leaders have been promising.

Implementing a national carbon tax would be only one step toward addressing climate change, a problem that must ultimately be dealt with globally. But it would be a big one.

Perhaps the Post should have pointed out just why there is a “dim debate” on global warming in Congress, as they have in the past — see WashPost stunner [4/18/11]: “The GOPs climate-change denial may be its most harmful delusion.” Still, it’s worth remembering that this is a paper that has worked hard to appeal to conservatives by publishing the nonsense of deniers and confusionists:

In case you were wondering just who is the Washington Post‘s editorial board and how do they decide to write editorials, they provide the answer here:

Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the editorial board. The board includes: Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson DiehlJo-Ann Armao , who specializes in education and District affairs; Jonathan Capehart, who focuses on national politics; Lee Hockstader, who writes about political and other issues affecting Virginia and Maryland; Charles Lane, who concentrates on economic policy, trade and globalization; Stephen Stromberg, who specializes in energy, the environment, public health and other federal policy; and editorial cartoonist Tom Toles. Op-ed editor Autumn Brewington, opinions editor for digital Marisa Bellack and letters editor Michael Larabee also take part in board discussions. The board highlights issues it thinks are important and responds to news events, mindful of stands it has taken in previous editorials and principles that have animated Post editorial boards over time. Articles in the news pages sometimes prompt ideas for editorials, but every editorial is based on original reporting. News reporters and editors never contribute to editorial board discussions, and editorial board members don’t have any role in news coverage.

I’m guessing the main voice of climate sanity on the Board is the brilliant Tom Toles — see Toles’ “last rant about the climate.”

23 Responses to A Sweltering Planet’s Agenda: Washington Post Editorial Board Calls For Carbon Tax

  1. john atcheson says:

    This is big news. Did they fire Fred Hiatt?

  2. While this is good, I must admit that my first though was “just wait until George Will’s next column.” I guess that I am getting too cynical, or is that what comes with experience. Like the climate, these things come in cycles and the next economic shock will change many minds.

    We must take advantage of every opportunity to force the media to paying attention to this story.

  3. sault says:

    The mortgage interest deduction is kind of pointless and exacerbates carbon emissions somewhat by making larger, more energy consuming homes more appealing. However, I never hear people saying that a carbon tax can be used to offset payroll taxes.

    You have built-in progressivity with this option by using the carbon tax to offset one of the most regressive taxes we have. This would simplify the administration of the tax. It would also shift the tax burden from employment (on both workers and employers) to consumption, reducing unemployment and spurring economic growth. Who knows what the combination of increased fossil fuel prices and reduced hiring costs will have on “green jobs” and the clean energy sector, but it is bound to be much better than what we have currently.

    The main problem I see with this approach is that the tax will fall heaviest on the unemployed poor, so some of the carbon tax should still be used for job training and low-income assistance to make up that shortfall.

    I saw somewhere that a $20 per ton carbon tax would add $0.18 to a gallon of gasoline, so $25 a ton would add a little under $0.25 or so. The average household would see their utility bills increase by about $200 a year while the products everybody buys would increase in price according to their carbon intensity. However, with lower unemployment and (hopefully) rising wages, many households could still come out ahead.

  4. Toles should be running the whole op ed dept. He’s clearly the most insightful of them all.

    This is a very good development.

  5. Superman1 says:

    “I saw somewhere that a $20 per ton carbon tax would add $0.18 to a gallon of gasoline, so $25 a ton would add a little under $0.25 or so. The average household would see their utility bills increase by about $200 a year while the products everybody buys would increase in price according to their carbon intensity. However, with lower unemployment and (hopefully) rising wages, many households could still come out ahead.”

    To avoid the impending catastrophe, we need to cut fossil fuel combustion, and the associated CO2 emissions, to as low as possible right now! A carbon tax that would have any merit would need to result in gas prices double or triple what they are now. 0.18 cents per gallon extra is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It will accomplish nothing of any substance.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice to see some good news once in a while, and hats off to WaPo. Now let’s see if they stop running garbage from the likes of George Will and Bjorn Lomborg.

    There will be lots of whining about a $.25 a gallon gas price increase, much of it orchestrated by the oil companies. Meanwhile, gas costs around $7 in Europe.

    The most important effect will be reducing the feasibility of new coal and gas power plants, especially if the NOAA analysis is used to calculate emissions from largely fracked natural gas deposits. To make sure this happens, the $25 tax should include regular increases. Obama will need to support both. It will be interesting to see what he does here, though it’s likely to be nothing.

  7. Joe Romm says:


  8. Joan Savage says:

    I have to rejoice – momentarily – when a basic concept is given a compact phrase in the mainstream, such as,

    “slowly and fitfully, not every year warmer than the last, but inexorably.”

    A previous gem was the in-a-nutshell that on a hotter planet there is more moisture in the air.

    We need more of these.

  9. BillD says:

    Even a small carbon tax will go a long ways to changing the cost balance between renewable energy (especially wind and solar) relative to fossil fues (especially coal but also natural gas) for electricity. This would also be a win for biofuels. Of, matching European gas prices would be even better for the climate, but not much chance of that in the short term.

  10. Daniel Coffey says:

    A carbon tax is a very bad idea for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it ensures a commitment to the status quo use of carbon. Yes, you think it will reduce use by shifting costs to consumers who will then shift behavior based on cost, primarily by reducing use, but that will increase the life of equipment burning coal and natural gas while reducing the funds otherwise available for non-carbon renewable energy systems and electrified transportation. The best way to get what we need is to use the current energy system to rapidly build and deploy the new technologies of wind and large-scale solar as fast as physically possible. Cut the talky studies and get on with the building. The most effective way to get results is the RPS – at around 70% – and high CAFE standards.

    Otherwise, the regressive nature of consumer level taxes, and make no mistake that costs will be shifted to the consumer, will make any carbon tax harsh for the poor and cause the government to sustain the source of money represented by a carbon tax. Note the effect gas taxes have on transportation spending – and the tug of war between public transit and road builders.

    We will not get a second chance to build our way out of global warming, and merely reducing consumption will be both harsh and ultimately unsuccessful.

  11. Daniel Coffey says:

    Beware the advocates of a carbon tax – such as Grover Norquist. Remember that such advocates think that a reduction on income tax could be effected by an increase in carbon tax, a tax which will be regressive and harsh to the poorest, while reducing the obligations of the wealthiest in our society. The Washington Post has no special knowledge or thoughts of much use on this topic.

  12. Daniel Coffey says:

    The trivial amount of reduction in use of carbon-based items will not be enough to even mildly affect global warming. We need to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, and the only sensible and humane way to do that is to substitute non-carbon energy systems for those which emit CO2. Otherwise, we will have a world and society where the rich have all they want and the poor cannot afford electricity. Large scale wind and solar pose the best solutions, and when you can deploy a 145 MW large scale solar facility in 5 weeks, its time to demand that kind of response instead of the Republican Market model of waiting until prices rise enough to shift investment. If we wait until the investment games focus on global warming, we’ll be toast – literally!

    We have to use our heads and demand solutions, not just market signals.

  13. Daniel Coffey says:

    Old Chinese saying: you talk, I do. That is the way people waste time when they should be building on the ground, not debating in the newspapers.

  14. fj says:

    Carbon tax, smarbon tax; we should be going at this thing at wartime speed and with carbon taxes as part of the logical economic infrastructure.

  15. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. Cigaret taxes have been very effective in reducing tobacco use in conjunction with messaging, smoking cessation, insurance incentives, etc. A carbon tax would work the same way.

    It’s hard to argue that a carbon tax will lock in a “commitment to carbon” more than its absence would.

    A carbon tax will be far less harsh on the consumer than climate change, and there are ways to structure the tax code to minimize that impact. Climate change is way, way more regressive than a carbon tax.

  16. fj says:

    Oops! “logical economic infrastructure” is an oxymoron

    as Nobel Laureate (in Economics) psychologist Daniel Kahneman indicated by proving that economics is not logical since humans are not rational

    . . . and detailed by case studies in his latest book:

    “Thinking Fast And Slow”

  17. Ernest says:

    The cartoon reminds of the TV series “Terra Nova”. The earth is trashed. Go back in time.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    When the MSM propaganda system has a project that furthers elite power, it always speaks with one voice, with 100% ideological correctness, with fluent Grouptalk and Newspeak. For example over the crucifixion and coming partition of Syria. However, when there is a restive rabble to be placated, a little sham ‘diversity’ may be allowed, to calm the hotheads, from time to time. If the WaPo really annoyed its shareholders and elite advertisers, they would change tack again, but I suspect that the Bosses are beginning to fear that the proles are starting to get a little agitated over ecological and economic collapse.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘…a society where the rich have all they want and the poor cannot afford electricity’, is exactly the Right’s dreamworld, a neo-feudal imperial order that neo-liberal capitalism makes inevitable. And it’s coming to your town, if it hasn’t arrived already.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A carbon tax would be effective, in my opinion, if it rose at a set rate, giving business that ‘certainty’ that they always demand, but refuse to extend to others, if its proceeds were hypothecated to renewable research and development, ecological repair, and massive compensation for the poor and middle income masses. Moreover it ought, I firmly believe, be applied along with a series of wealth taxes that reverse the current appalling, unprecedented and wicked inequality of wealth that is the major factor behind economic implosion and ecological collapse. As long as the planet is ruled, and run into the ground, by a tiny, hyper-avaricious and viscerally misanthropic elite, we are destined for catastrophe.

  21. prokaryotes says:

    Best cartoon ever!

  22. sault says:

    $25 a ton would be a start and we can ratchet it up from there. We cannot change our energy markets overnight, even if fossil fuel companies didn’t have any influence over the process.

    With lower pollution and healthier people, we’ll need more and more money going into Social Security to keep their benefits going for a lot more years! Medicare savings from less bronchitis, asthma, heart attacks, etc. would probably make up for the shortfall, though.

  23. wili says:

    Thank you, DC.

    If one country actively being bombed by an enemy discovered that companies and peoples within their own borders were making bombs and sending them to the enemy, would a logical response be:

    “Well, let’s put a hefty and rising tax on that bomb manufacturing and export business so that the market will eventually get the right signal and we might eventually get fewer bombs dropped on our cities.”


    Such a response would obviously be some combination of absurd, ridiculous, and utterly disgustingly immoral.

    Yet this is the tenor of conversation even among many of the best informed on the issue.

    Hence my prevailing sense of doom.