When 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, the movement to clean up our air and water and to prevent our world from becoming one big garbage dump was born. Before the year was out, Congress passed -- and President Nixon signed -- the Clean Air Act, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency as the guardian of all that we breathe and, eventually, the water we drink.
Over the years, the EPA has served us well by regulating the pollution that would otherwise make our air and water toxic. And while the agency remains vigilant on that front, it has been charged with an even more difficult and important responsibility: preserving a livable world for future generations by cutting the greenhouse-gas pollution that is slowly roasting our civilization.
To be clear, this is a responsibility thrust upon the EPA by Congress' failure to act. For decades now, scientists have warned that the carbon-based fuels we burn to keep us comfortable, manufacture our products and get us from one place to another are driving carbon dioxide levels to dangerous heights.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have a "carbon budget" that, at current rates of emission, will be exceeded in a few decades. Busting that budget will lead to warming beyond the 2 degrees Celsius scientists tell is, if not safe, at least manageable.
Acting on this information, and seeing no solution forthcoming from Congress any time soon, President Obama is using his executive authority on a broad range of initiatives to cut carbon. The one generating the most heat is his directive to the EPA to develop regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants. The proposed rules will make it impossible to open new coal-fired power plants that don't capture and sequester carbon and will force some existing plants to eventually shut down.
Pushback and posturing has already begun. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who represents coal-rich Kentucky, has introduced legislation to block the EPA's proposed rules, even though Congress can't block a regulation until it is finalized.
It's understandable that Republicans, who, generally speaking, wish to decrease the size of government, are not big fans of new EPA regulations. But how, then, can we as a nation take responsibility for reducing the carbon pollution that poses such great risk to future generations?
The answer lies in a market-based solution favored by a number of conservatives: Put a tax on carbon and give the revenue back to the people.
Conservative economists from Romney adviser Greg Mankiw to Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz argue that the free market normally gravitates to things that are good for our society. There are times, however, when the price of something does not reflect its damage, the cost of which is borne by society. Such is the case with fossil fuels, whose price does not reflect the health, security and environmental costs that arise from their use. If we fix this price distortion -- through a steadily-increasing tax -- the market will gravitate toward cleaner energy and energy efficiency without the need for regulations or subsidies.
Detractors who argue against a carbon tax say it will kill jobs, drag down the economy and burden families with higher energy bills. But a well-designed carbon tax that recycles revenue back to households and into the economy would protect families from rising costs and actually add jobs. A recent study by Regional Economic Models, Inc. found that a carbon tax in California, even at very high levels, would increase GDP and add hundreds of thousands of jobs, provided the revenue is returned to the public, either as tax cuts or direct payments.
The other main argument against a carbon tax -- that it will put American businesses at a disadvantage with foreign competitors -- can be easily dismissed by placing border tariffs on imports from nations that do not have an equivalent price on carbon. Such tariffs would provide the incentive for other nations to adopt similar policies, making the revenue-neutral carbon tax a solution that is global in scope.
The original Earth Day crystalized a movement that brought us the agency charged with protecting the purity of our air and water. Rather than attacking the EPA for trying to do what Congress has failed to do -- address climate change -- our lawmakers can rise to the challenge and enact a national tax on carbon that gives revenue back to the people.