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The Carbon Tax: A Moral Issue

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The recent announcement of two pieces of important clean energy legislation in the Congress have put the carbon tax versus cap-and-trade debate on the national front burner. This disagreement as to the most effective remedy to confront the climate change crisis may seem like just another controversy among Washington energy wonks. It is, in fact, a vital moral question that could help decide whether our planet's fate is life or death. Even in the midst of economic meltdown this crisis of our irreplaceable earth must be confronted.

The time has come for the communities of faith and for all those concerned about ethics to grasp the value of the carbon tax from this perspective. Exacting a financial penalty from those who are responsible for the scorching of the earth seems to be a requirement of any elemental morality.

The earth is sending us ever more insistent messages about its threatened future, messages that can no longer be ignored. All reliable scientific data is signaling with ever greater clarity that the global warming crisis is moving faster than previously believed and much faster than our leaders are willing to admit. Recently even scientists were alarmed that ocean levels are rising twice as quickly as previously predicted. Dr. James Hansen, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies of NASA and our nation's leading climate expert , insisted that we must reduce carbon emissions by the radical number of 80% by 2050 or face "global cataclysm" with rampant coastal flooding, more powerful hurricanes, drought followed by famine, wholesale species extinction and tens of millions of environmental refugees.

One may still wonder how the seemingly mundane matter of paying a price for the emission of carbon dioxide can help defuse the greatest ticking time bomb of planetary history. This question is linked to the fact that never before has human activity been able to transform and disrupt the very chemistry and geology of planet earth -- perhaps irreversibly . It is this very activity, only stemming back a mere 250 years to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which must now be confronted, checked and paid for.

The dramatic moment has come when the human species because it is responsible for most of this damage, must radically reconsider its activity in the name of its own survival, along with that of millions of other life species. While the rapid reversal of this destructive human activity must include creating a green economy and clean energy strategy, it has to begin by stemming the carbon emissions at their source. Unless "homo carbonus" can be persuaded or compelled to cease and desist from the release of these poisonous emissions into our burdened atmosphere, all will be lost for future generations.

The primary producers of carbon are the coal and oil corporations, but include all the users of fossil fuel. American society leads the pack with the dubious distinction of representing less than 5% of the earth's population while being the locust-like consumers of more than 20% of global energy. It is here that this historic crisis must confront the question of levying a carbon tax on such dangerous -- perhaps criminal -- activity.

Some would argue -- and these include people of good will -- that these destructive emissions can be halted by a strategy passing under the elegant nomenclature of "cap-and-trade". This strategy has as many variations as the proverbial chameleon. Strange to say, most of them are based on the principle that the carbon perpetrators are not necessarily required to reduce their deadly activity. Rather they are given the option in a variety of forms of avoiding responsibility for their misdeeds by paying off another entity -- corporation or geographical area, often in a poor and desperate part of the earth -- to decrease their carbon production as their proxy.

Such a bizarre arrangement would seem to violate the most fundamental ethical principle of taking responsibility for one's own hurtful actions , first of all, by ceasing from them and then, where possible, making reparations. We teach this basic moral principle to our children that if, for example, they are hitting other children in the sand box, they must stop their actions and apologize to those hurt. It would not be acceptable to have them pay off one of their, perhaps poorer, playmates to lessen their violent activity against the kids on the playground in their stead.

The cap-and-trade idea also recalls the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, which was seized on by Martin Luther and became a major catalyst of the Protestant Reformation. It allowed the thief, the adulterer, the murderer and the defrauder of the poor to secure forgiveness of his sins by buying his way out of the allegedly purifying flames of Purgatory rather than demanding a radical change of his life to a true "path of righteousness". This mechanical financial transaction, rather than an authentic conversion to a life of goodness, fueled the righteous wrath of Luther and the other Reformers. The practice also unfairly favored the rich, who could more easily afford to buy their way into Heaven. (Strangely enough, the Vatican has been talking about reviving indulgences.)

This same shell game informs many of the cap-and-trade practices as opposed to the simple moral principle that he who does the harm to the earth must also pay for it directly. In place of such a direct penalty this moral obligation cannot be traded or auctioned off to some other entity, including poor developing countries, who are paid off to proportionally reduce their carbon production in place of the original carbon perpetrators. As Archbishop Tutu recently wrote: "The polluter must pay."

A direct penalty fee or tax, on the other hand, let us say $50 for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted, is a just way of reversing the destructive carbon path. It represents the environmental version of making up with all the bullied smaller kids in the global sand box. Instead of the questionable method of paying off another company or even bribing poor people to carry the load of the fossil fuel addiction of "developed" societies, the proceeds of such a tax could be equitably redistributed to the general public. The beneficiaries of the tax would include low income people, the elderly, single parents, the disabled and the middle class. It comes as no surprise that poor people and people of color have been strong supporters of a carbon tax over cap - and - trade solutions. Such a tax would also leap frog over the lobbyists and carbon traders whom cap - and -trade would make millionaires.

A carbon tax also has numerous practical advantages. These include a certain simplicity ,which would facilitate implementing such a tax rapidly and without protracted rule making. We cannot afford delays as we fight the environmental clock. It is also transparent, whereas a cap - and - trade process is more subject to manipulation and becoming another Ponzi scheme keeping the bottom line hidden from the public. The tax is also predictable, which offers great advantages to the business and commercial community. One hopes that these advantages will outweigh the misgivings, which legislators have about anything with the word "tax" in it as they consider the new bills before them.

The primary contributors to such a carbon fee would be the oil and coal companies and even enterprises indirectly dependent on fossil fuel . They would also include a hopefully more enlightened citizenry who would in effect be paying for their own emissions at the gas pump and the check out line but would also be benefiting by the proceeds. They would come to understand, as in many other countries, that higher gasoline prices will encourage the use of public transportation, bicycles and a more sustainable life style. We do so in the name of the earth and for our children and grandchildren. To them we might still leave a restored verdant earth home instead of a sterile moonscape planet devoid of life and hope.

One is moved by the beauty and prescience that Gerard Manley Hopkins, the mid - nineteenth century poet, left us in his magnificent "God's Grandeur". His words depict the stark impact of the Industrial Revolution on the natural world and yet leave us with hope in the power of the earth to restore herself:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

Father Paul Mayer
Co-Founder/Climate Crisis Coalition

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