Are You Tired of Hearing About Climate Change?

In the spring of 1968 one of my classmates at Brewer High School nervously told a teacher that he wanted to discuss the Vietnam War.  It is hard now to appreciate the anxiety created for 17 year old males when registration for the draft loomed.  The teacher responded that he was tired of hearing about Vietnam and there was nothing new to say about the issue.  Of course the war raged on for seven more years, tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives were lost, and many more were devastated.  Despite my teacher’s fatigue over the issue, it is fair to say that the war did not end well for the U.S. or for Vietnam.

In a very real way, climate change has become another important issue surrounded by issue fatigue.  Individuals have heard what arguments they want to hear, reached a decision, and moved on.  Many, like my high school teacher, are tired of hearing about the issue and believe there is nothing new to say.  We take that approach at great peril.

I recall first reading about the prospect of human-induced climate change about 40 years ago in a 1965 report by the President’s Science Advisory Committee.  Even then scientists were observing changes we caused in the chemistry of the atmosphere that could lead to climate change.  Twenty-five years ago last month, I wrote my first OpEd piece on climate change for the Bangor Daily News – “National commitment needed on global warming” (July 20, 1991).  I no longer refer to either global warming or climate change.  The appropriate term now for how humans have affected nature is global change, because humans have changed more than just the climate system.  Nevertheless, the climate issue is still fundamentally important and we need to fight the sense of fatigue around it.

I am trained as an economist, not an atmospheric scientist.  But I have read a lot of the science of climate change and many of the critiques of that science from both skeptics and deniers.  For me there is no doubt of three things:

-the climate is changing along with other aspects of the Earth system;

-a significant portion of that change is due to human behaviors that we control;

-we cannot afford to let our fatigue on the issue keep us from forcibly confronting it.

The Obama administration has now proposed new rules to address climate change caused by power plants in the U.S.  The logic of this approach appears to be that “half a loaf is better than none.”  Since Congress has refused to acknowledge the human role in climate change, the President is forced to use provisions of the Clean Air Act to designate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.  This then allows a regulatory approach to address fossil fuel power plant emissions.

The problem with this approach is two-fold.  First, it only addresses a fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. economy, maybe one third; and it regulates those emissions in a convoluted, inefficient, and ultimately expensive way. Second, this approach tells the average American that the electric power industry is at fault for climate change; the rest of us are absolved of responsibility.

Many economists, like Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, advocate a different approach from the fiddly regulatory mechanism under the Obama Clean Power Plan.  They would use taxes, like a revenue-neutral tax on carbon and other greenhouse gases.  Rather than just change how electricity generation contributes to climate change, we would build into economic systems incentives to make a host of positive changes.  Economic activities that are damaging to the climate would be discouraged while those that contribute to climate change solutions would be encouraged.

The revenue-neutral part of a carbon tax is meant to reduce some other federal taxes so that the overall rate of taxation would not increase.  My preference for the tax to offset with a carbon tax is the payroll tax that funds Social Security.  Rather than reducing the rate of payroll taxes, it would be wiser to eliminate the tax on the first $5,000 to $10,000 of earnings every year.  This would reduce the regressive nature of the payroll tax and reduce the burden of the new carbon tax on those in society least able to pay.

A broad-based tax on carbon emissions presents a number of political problems.  For some people, any new tax, even one that is revenue neutral, is an anathema.  The “T” word is so toxic that, were George Carlin doing his famous sketch now, he would have to change its title to “Eight Dirty Words.”  Even more problematic, there is a host of regulatory and tax policies around energy use that a carbon tax would make unnecessary or even counterproductive.  These would need to be changed, causing a line of special interests in opposition to a carbon tax.  Not the least of these would be in the world of renewable energy where special interests have been particularly effective.

The second problem with the Obama plan is that it ignores the reality that individuals are at the root cause of changes in the atmosphere creating climate change.  It is how you and I live in our daily lives that matters.  The average American emits over 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year in heating, electricity use, transportation, food, and recreation.  Our carbon footprint is large.  The clear benefit of a carbon tax is the market signal to everyone in our society telling them what their true impact is from the way we live now.  That market signal then encourages innovation and lifestyle changes that will lead much more quickly to a better environment.  It says to each of us, in the words of Eldridge Cleaver, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

In the same way that fatigue over America’s war in Vietnam led to years of disastrous policy, we face the same prospect with climate change.  Let us collectively face up to the challenge, if for no other reason than it is in our best interest to do so.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.