In an opinion article published on Utility Dive, Kenneth Costello argues that adopting a carbon tax would be a mistake. As he says, “(i)nstead of a carbon tax, why not give more consideration to adaptive strategies, which can evolve over time in response to new information?” His arguments make several key errors and underestimate the political will required to deliver his preferred option.
We need not rely on the social cost of carbon (SCC) to set a tax. Instead of using a benefit-cost approach implied by the SCC, we can use a cost-effectiveness approach by setting the tax to achieve an expected amount of greenhouse gases reduction. This is really no different than how we conduct most of our private transactions–we don’t directly weigh the monetary benefits of buying a new car against its costs–we decide what type of car that we want and then spend the money to buy that car. We may not achieve the mythical “positive net benefits” using such a strategy, but the the truth is that benefit-cost analysis is problematic in the context of climate change, as Martin Weitzmann among others pointed out.
We have a good idea of how increased prices that would result from a carbon tax impact demand, contrary to Costello’s assertion. We have seen that over and over with changes in gasoline and electricity prices in the last half century. (One paper found that the early CAFE standards did not affect automobile fleet fuel economy until gas prices fell in 1984.) We can adaptively manage a carbon tax (which also can be implemented as a global trade tariff framework) to steer toward our emissions reduction target.
Costello instead proposes that we focus solely on climate adaptation by hardening our infrastructure and other measures. This illustrates a lack of understanding of the breadth of the expected impacts and the inability of a large segment of the world’s population to undertake such mitigation without a large wealth transfer. Further, such adaptation focuses largely on the direct impacts to humans and ignores the farther ranging ones on our global environment. Those latter effects, such as ocean acidification and melting of the tundra, can lead to catastrophic outcomes that cannot be readily adapted to, no matter what is spent. And there other effects that that we may not even know about. Focusing so narrowly on what might be adaptive strategies will lead to a gross underestimation of the costs to adapt.
Finally, Costello overestimates the political barriers to implementing and managing a carbon tax and overestimates the political will to implement adaptation strategies. Contrary to his assertion, environmental groups such as EDF and NRDC have been at the forefront of using prices and taxes to regulate environmental pollutants. (I have worked for several of them on such proposals.) Yes, politicians want to avoid taxes, but that reflects the more general problem of wanting to avoid any hard choices. And we only need to look at the state of the U.S. infrastructure to see how difficult it is to persuade the political system to make the investments that Costello recommends. This will be a tough road either way, but the carbon tax option cannot be simply dismissed based on Costello’s analysis.
Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN has sparked a discussion about our deeper responsibilities to our future generations. When we made the huge effort to fight World War II, did we ask “how much will this cost?” We face the same existential threat and should make the same commitment. We can do this cost effectively, and avoid making most stupid decisions, but asking whether this effort is worth it is now beyond question. We will have to consider how to compensate those who have invested their money or their livelihoods in activities that we now recognize as damaging to the climate, and that will be an added cost to the rest of us. (And we may see this as unfair.) But we really have no choice.
J. Frank Bullit posted on “Fox and Hounds” a sentiment that reflects the core of opposition to such actions:
What if the alarmists are wrong, yet there is no counter to the demands of enacting economic and energy policies we might regret?”
So our energy costs might be a bit more than it would have otherwise, but we get a cleaner environment in exchange. And even now, renewable energy sources are competing well on a dollar to dollar basis.
On the other hand, if the “alarmists” are correct, the consequences have a significant probability of being catastrophic to our civilization, as well as our environment. We all have insurance on our houses for events that we see as highly unlikely. We pay that extra cost on our house to gain assurance that we will recover our investments if such unlikely events occur. These are costs that we are willing to accept because we know that the “alarmists” have a point about the risks of house fires. We should be taking the same attitude towards climate change assessments. It’s not possible to prove that there is no risk, or even that the risk is tiny. And the data trends are sufficiently consistent with the forecasts to date that the probabilities weigh more towards a likelihood than not.
Unless opponents can show that the consequences of the alarmists being wrong are worse than the climate change threat, we have to act to mitigate that risk in much the same way as we do when we buy house insurance. (And by the way, we don’t have another “house” to move to…)
I chuckled when I saw this article extolling how CAFE fuel economy standards should be replaced with “clean tax cuts.” One proponent said, “If you want more of something, tax it less.”
But apparently, these incentives work only one direction. “It’s very common, historically, for companies to not meet the targets and just pay the fines,” said Josiah Neeley, a senior fellow for the R Street Institute. However, the auto companies were not happy with a proposal to increase the penalty 155%. Does that mean that the penalty got large enough to incent greater compliance?
I like this taxonomy of what type of regulatory/liability framework to use in which situation posted in Environmental Economics. (Reminds me of a market-type structure I created for my 1996 paper on environmental commodity markets.) However, I think the two choices on the right side could be changed:
- Lower right corner to “incentive-based regulation”: The damages are clear and can be valued, but engaging in market transactions is costly. For example, energy efficiency has a clear value with significant spill over benefits, but the costs of gaining information about net gains is costly for individuals. So setting an incentive standard for manufacturers or in energy rates is more cost effective.
- Upper right corner to “command and control regulation”: The damages are known and significant, but quantifying them economically, or even physically, is difficult. There are no opportunities for market transactions, but society wants to act. In this case, the regulators would set bounds on behavior or performance.
Finally, a real world example of how benefit-cost analysis should be used in practice. Alberta takes the revenues that represent a portion of the society wide benefits and distributes those to the losers from the policy change. Economists have almost always ignored the problem of how to compensate losers in changes in social policy, and of course those who keep losing increasingly oppose any more policies. Instead of dreaming up ways to invest carbon market revenues in whiz bang solutions, we first need to focus on who’s being left behind so they are not resentful, and become a key political impediment to doing the right thing.
I follow Matthew Kahn’s, USC economics chair, blog posts. He expresses a libertarian view. He also writes about climate adaptation. He makes an important point that civilization is not static and we will be able to adapt the human ecology to a range of climate change. But his latest post on how climate change might affect marathon performances raised an important issue for me.
Kahn fails to acknowledge that adaptation to small, incremental climate change is not the concern. It’s the large, catastrophic changes with unknown (and unknowable) probability–deep uncertainty–that is of concern–collapsing ice sheets or ecosystems. He is not addressing the problem of what happens if the climate passes a tipping point. These types of articles and blog posts produced by Kahn and his colleagues trivialize the real risks and consequences, as though we’re just trying to adapt to a change in the weather while ignoring the potential systemic changes.
I believe that California’s passage of the extended cap and trade program was a generally good compromise. Most importantly, it decoupled the cap and trade market from separate legislation to regulate local emission impacts. As I wrote earlier, earlier proposals failed on this aspect.
Here’s the two best analyses I’ve seen so far, one legal and the other economic (by a former Michigan classmate), of the legislation.