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Carbon Tax is a Poison Pill

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This may piss off some people I respect a great deal. Nonetheless, after hearing it in several off-the-record conversations in D.C. last week, I believe it's something that needs to be said publicly:

The 111th U.S. Congress is not going to pass a carbon tax. Calls for a carbon tax, to the extent they have any effect, will complicate and possibly derail passage of carbon legislation.

It's possible that a carbon tax (and/or cap-and-dividend) bill will be introduced. One or both might even make it to a full vote, though I doubt it. But they won't pass. If you want carbon pricing out of this Congress, cap-and-trade is what you're getting. It follows that your energies are best spent ensuring that cap-and-trade legislation is as strong as possible.

Them's the facts.

Through some process I find truly mysterious, the carbon tax has become a kind of totem of authenticity among progressives, while cap-and-trade now symbolizes corporate sellouthood. Across the interwebs, lefties now proclaim with absolute confidence and no small sanctimony that we should entrust our children's future to economists (whose historical contribution to environmental policy has been hostility, doomsaying, and an unbroken record of error) and the Congressional committees that control tax policy (climate champions all). "Pay to pollute," once the scourge of the green movement, is now the sine qua non of keepin' it real. It is baffling.

It doesn't seem to daunt these folks that their hostility toward cap-and-trade and support for carbon taxes has been taken up by a growing cadre on the far right, including Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, economist Arthur Laffer, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and yes, even climate wingnut Sen. James Inhofe (R-Gamma Quadrant). Hell, throw in a refunded gas tax and you get America's Worst Columnist© Charles Krauthammer too. Are we to believe that these folks understand the threat of climate chaos, want to reduce climate emissions the amount science indicates is prudent, and sincerely believe that a carbon tax is the best way to accomplish that goal?

Perhaps, if we slept through the last decade, we might believe that. Having been awake (and watching in horror), we understand that it's a poison pill. It's a way to avoid legislation at all if possible and secure the weakest possible bill if not. It's a way to exploit disagreements within the climate coalition and derail momentum. That's what they do. As usual, they're fighting a knife fight and the left is holding a grad school seminar.

(Incidentally -- and I realize this is open to dispute -- for my money nobody's more savvy about this than Corker, who is honing in on points of contention or weakness and exploiting them for all they're worth.)

On a policy basis, I believe carbon tax advocates like James Hansen are wrong on the merits, convinced by arguments that are tendentious, airily academic, and/or overly conservative. I believe both carbon cap-and-trade and taxes have advantages, but ultimately that a well-designed C&T system is preferable to a well-designed tax. The most important thing is designing well, since either policy (contra tax advocates) is subject to loopholes, corruption, and gross insufficiency.

But that discussion is largely beside the point now. For a brief window of time we have a Congress and president ready to really do something on carbon pricing. What they're ready to do is pass a cap-and-trade bill. They'll face implacable opposition, which will be speaking in a single voice and with a simple message. If progressives don't wise up, they'll enter yet another battle with a cacophony of clashing messages and strategies, and will be easily divided and outplayed. If the progressive grassroots plays a role in scuttling the best hope for climate legislation the nation has ever had, it will be a bitter irony indeed.

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