10/05/2011 11:38 am ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

We the People... Want to Price Carbon

I've never put a lot of stock in online petitions. Ask any member of Congress why they voted for a particular piece of legislation, and chances are they won't say, "It was the 20,000 signatures on that Internet site that won me over." I've always held that a dozen personal, handwritten letters are far more persuasive than thousands of clicks on a Web page.

But when the White House recently launched their "We The People" petition site, I thought I'd give it a shot. I figured if they're asking for our opinion, they might just listen. And there's a payoff if you get enough signatures. Any petition that crosses the 5,000 threshold will be reviewed by the appropriate staff, who will send a response out to all who signed the petition.

My thinking was this: Given the little PR problem the president is having lately with the Solyndra failure, perhaps he's looking for advice on ways that we can expand clean-energy businesses without rolling the dice with taxpayer money. So, I came up with a petition of my own:

"We believe the Obama Administration should propose legislation that would place a gradually-increasing fee on carbon-based fuels and return the revenue from that fee to American consumers. Such a fee would motivate private investment in clean energy and energy efficiency, creating new jobs and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Returning revenue to consumers would shield households from the economic impact of rising energy costs associated with the carbon fee."

The failure of Solyndra is no indication that solar -- or other types of clean energy -- is a bad investment. A recent Brookings study shows clean tech has been the fastest growing sector over the last seven years and is producing jobs at an amazing clip. The Solyndra failure simply tells us that the government doesn't need to be picking winners and losers in clean energy. If we put a clear, predictable price on carbon, private investment will make federal subsidies look like chump change, and the shift to carbon-free power will be off and running. The marketplace will decide which businesses emerge on top and which fall by the wayside -- without the loss of federal funds.

With loan-guarantee programs for clean energy on the defensive, a price on carbon is needed now more than ever to keep investment flowing to solar, wind and other alternatives to fossil fuels.

Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA) is about to introduce a bill similar to what's proposed in the petition. His legislation would take a portion of carbon tax revenue to pay down the deficit and give the rest back to consumers. (More on that in a later post.)

In the meantime, let's see if we can get the White House on board.

Aside from putting carbon pricing back on Obama's radar, here's another reason we need a good showing on this petition: As evidenced by their impending approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the White House has made the political calculation that they have less to lose by ignoring climate change than they do by acting to stop it. In every way possible, Americans need to let the administration know this is a bad assumption. Signing this petition -- and the one to stop the pipeline -- is one way to do that.

There's one little catch with the petitions. We have 30 days to amass 5,000 signatures. Otherwise, nobody in the West Wing will give a hoot. I've been circulating this petition for a week, now, and it's getting some traction -- about 700 signatures. But I could us a little help. If it sounds like a good idea to you, sign on and pass it along.

If we don't hit the 5,000 mark, it'll be pretty disappointing, especially in view of the fact that pot smokers already have 50,000 signatures to legalize marijuana.