The Pushback

by Dave Schuler on June 3, 2014

There’s been quite a bit of reaction to the EPA’s plan to reduce poewr plant emissions by fiat. Here are the editors of the Washington Post:

These numbers will be fought over — including by those who believe they do not fully represent the benefits. But the main point is that this plan is a down payment on a comprehensive climate plan, not the most efficient policy nor a suitably ambitious response to climate change. Assuming the proposal survives the inevitable legal onslaught, opponents will no doubt insist that the climate issue is dealt with. Global warming activists got their regulations, so why do any more?

A few reasons (there are many): The EPA’s new plan is a medium-term policy, but the country requires a long-run transformation in how it produces and consumes energy. Its implementation will depend heavily on who’s in the Oval Office; not much would happen in a Ted Cruz administration. The proposal applies only to the electricity sector, but emissions result from activities across the economy.

continuing by pitching a gradually rising carbon tax. The editors of the Wall Street Journal on the other hand point to the contradiction between environmental policy while complaining about rising income inequality:

The EPA claims to be targeting “polluters,” but the government is essentially creating an artificial scarcity in carbon energy. Scarcities mean higher prices, which will hit the poor far harder than they will the anticarbon crusaders who live in Pacific Heights. The lowest 10% of earners pay three times as much as a share of their income for electricity compared to the middle class. If you want more inequality, this is an ideal way to ensure it.

The EPA plan will also redistribute income from economically successful states to those that have already needlessly raised their energy costs. The New England and California cap-and-trade programs will get a boost, while the new rule punishes the regions that rely most on fossil fuels and manufacturing: the South, Ohio River Valley and mid-Atlantic. Think of it as a transfer from Austin to Sacramento.

It should also be mentioned that claims by bakery shop window-breakers notwithstanding manufacturing depends on cheap, plentiful energy. When you impose penalties on energy producers without viable alternatives (wind and solar won’t be viable substitutes for coal for the foreseeable future if ever) you are saying that you prefer reducing emissions to producing jobs that ordinary people can do. Fewer jobs will be created by more expensive energy than were created by coal.

For decades I supported a carbon tax, largely for geopolitical reasons. That was long before such a tax would have meant exporting our emissions to China where a) they’ll spread over here anyway and b) the problem becomes intractable due to China’s social, political, and legal structures. I’ve also become skeptical of the efficacy of a carbon tax for reasons somewhat along the lines the WSJ editors suggest.

Just assume that carbon emissions pose a problem. I don’t want this post to turn into another argument about climate change. Assume it. Carbon taxes are regressive. For them to be effective assumes that everyone’s lifestyle produces the same level of omissions or that emissions vary roughly linearly with income. If, on the other hand, emissions vary exponentially with income a carbon tax would make life increasingly tough for ordinary people but would do little or nothing about emissions. Billionaires fly to Europe on a regular basis and have multiple 25,000 square foot houses. Sales clerks generally don’t.

There are ways of dealing with that but they’d require broad political consensus, something lacking and that neither side seems to have any interest in fostering. And most especially it’s not something that can be done by fiat.

Meanwhile, here’s a modest proposal. Why don’t Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Barack Obama, just to name three, model the behavior they’d like to see in others? They’d have to live more like Warren Buffett. Quelle horreur! It would mean they couldn’t fly anywhere and they’d have to turn off the air conditioning but aren’t those small prices to pay to save the planet?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

PD Shaw June 3, 2014 at 8:06 am

It seems right-of-center support for pigovian tax on carbon demand that other taxes be eliminated like the payroll tax. Politically, it would seem necessary any way.

... June 3, 2014 at 8:11 am

Tell me again why I’m supposed to believe that the Administration isn’t thrilled with low levels of employment and higher levels of inequality. If that’s what they ALWAYS work towards, I have to believe that’s the goal.

Guarneri June 3, 2014 at 9:18 am

“Assume it.” That’s fine. That’s how logical people noodle over thorny issues.

Now let’s draw some other red lines that define boundaries…….er, bad choice of words. Sometimes define boundaries. Maybe.

1) Solar, wind and hydro niche sources will not provide more than a small minority of needs (that’s very generous) in even our grandchildren’s lives.

2) Natural gas is the motherload, but for the sake of this discussion is simply carbon-light.

3) Ain’t gonna be no hydrogen cars in even our grandchildren’s lives. Distribution, sudden and extremely rapid oxidation and sech.

4) The BRICS are gonna do whatever they damned well please and dominate our self-immolating efforts.

5) Pigouvian taxes would reduce consumption here and maybe Europe, but be yet another cruel joke played on the less well off. Also, see “4.”

In summary, we can nibble around the carbon emission edges, but the absolute amount of CO2 is going up.

Let’s see. Geothermal? Viable but small. Nuclear? Guess what. You can’t get there from here without nuclear. An awful lot of energy in them there bonds. And you don’t have to oxidize carbon to get at it. But the enviros won’t have it, which is why you know they are full of it. We must “save the planet,” but only by the “method” of no growth or tax, tax, tax. Not something that might actually work technically, politically and economically. The French only seem to get three things right: food, wine and nuclear power. At least they gotst that.

The “Algorian” / “Obamian” stance” is simply irrational. I may think Obama is an incompetent executive, but I don’t think he’s a dumb man. He’s just playing politics and its foolish. Foolish for him in the history books. Foolish faith for those who think he’s actually accomplishing anything useful. And most certainly foolish, if not reckless, if you accept the basic premise Dave asked us to. The Empire State building is supposedly going to become a submarine but we can’t bring ourselves to grapple with nuclear power? Me smells a rat.

Dave Schuler June 3, 2014 at 11:01 am

The BRICS are gonna do whatever they damned well please and dominate our self-immolating efforts.

Not only that but if we lower their costs they’ll do more of “whatever they damned well please”.

... June 3, 2014 at 12:21 pm

How much carbon needs to consumed to build nuclear plants and distribution networks? Nothing using steel and concrete counts.

sudden and extremely rapid oxidation

Lol, nicely put!

... June 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Nothing using steel and concrete counts as carbon free energy, that is.

Guarneri June 3, 2014 at 1:55 pm

“How much carbon needs to consumed to build nuclear plants and distribution networks? Nothing using steel and concrete counts.”

None, right?? All the construction related equipment will be battery powered. And you just put a plug in the wall and “viola!” it charges all the batteries. Pretty cool, huh?

Dave Schuler June 3, 2014 at 2:40 pm

That’s another trade-off. After power generation and transportation the next greatest producer of greenhouse gases is cement production.

... June 3, 2014 at 6:26 pm

We just need to make the nuclear power plants out of wood – worked with stone tools, of course. What could possibly go wrong?

Jimbino June 4, 2014 at 11:01 am

Not only will a carbon-tax hurt the poorest, but it will also steal wealth and income from the childfree in order to subsidize the breeders.

We childfree have already done our part in reducing our carbon footprint by not breeding, and a breeding woman will at least double her footprint when she gives birth, all the while enjoying gummint incentives to maintain her breeding lifestyle.

Furthermore, living non-breeders will pay throughout their lifetimes for future benefits that will mostly benefit the progeny of the breeders.

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