Michael Gerson

The range of serious responses is limited. The federal government might spend directly on new technologies that produce energy without emitting carbon. But government's record in picking technological winners and losers is poor.

Others propose a carbon tax -- a cost per ton emitted, with no special exemptions. This system would be simple to implement and difficult to game. But it would also disproportionately punish some energy-intensive American industries -- cement, glass, steel and paper -- that face intense international competition.

The final alternative is a cap-and-trade system, which sets an overall limit on carbon emissions while directing relief to specific industries through rebates and offsets. Cap-and-trade has been used with dramatic success to reduce acid rain -- but it has never been employed on the massive scale that the regulation of carbon requires.

Critics argue that carbon restrictions, even if fully implemented, would only reduce global temperatures by minor amounts, which is true. We are not going to regulate our way out of global climate disruption. The only eventual solution is technological -- the ability to produce affordable, clean power on a large scale.

But conservatives seem strangely intent on ignoring the power of markets to encourage such innovation. Right now, the emission of carbon is essentially cost-free. Putting a price on carbon would make the development of cleaner energy technologies more profitable. New technologies could be employed, not only by America, but also by China, India and the rest of the developing, polluting world. And it is an added (but not minor) benefit that American resources would no longer be transferred to Saudi princes, Russian autocrats and Venezuelan dictators.

It is perfectly legitimate to argue that the House cap-and-trade system is flawed beyond redemption -- so complex and confusing that it only benefits regulators and the lobbyists who outwit them -- and that Congress should start over with a carbon tax.

It is also legitimate to contend that, while the cap-and-trade system is flawed, it is better than inaction and necessary to spur innovation. And for eight House Republicans who took this stand at great political risk, it is not only legitimate; it is admirable.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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