In his recent speech on climate change, President Barack Obama warned that "someday, our children and our children's children will look at us in the eye and they'll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world?"
He's probably right. Then they'll say, "Why the heck didn't you pass a carbon tax?" And we won't be able to give them a good reason.
That's because there is no good reason. A carbon tax, done the right way, is the closest thing you can get to a panacea. Refusing to enact it is like throwing out a winning lottery ticket.
By now, most scientists in the field agree that pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not a healthy practice for the planet or its inhabitants. In 2010, a report from the National Academy of Sciences asserted, "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for -- and in many cases is already affecting -- a broad range of human and natural systems."
The World Meteorological Organization reported this week that 2010 was the hottest year on record. It noted that "nearly 94 percent of reporting countries had their warmest decade in 2001-2010" -- while no country had a cooler-than-average decade. Polar ice is melting; oceans are rising; plants and animals are heading northward in search of cooler temperatures.
Gen. Philip Sheridan, if he were alive today, would have even more reason for his stated preference: "If I owned hell and Texas, I'd rent out Texas and live in hell." Before long, he might prefer the fiery pit to all sorts of places that once had congenial climes.
Although much of the damage is unavoidable, curbing the release of greenhouse gases would limit the severity of the problem. The United States has reduced its carbon dioxide output. But more is needed -- from the rest of the world, as well as from us -- to avert the worst scenario.
Obama paid tribute to the idea of making consumers and businesses pay more for fossil fuels in his 2013 State of the Union address, urging Congress "to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago." That option, "cap and trade," would have functioned like a carbon tax. But it has long since become radioactive among Republicans, who resist doing anything about global warming.
Eventually, they may pay a political price for insisting that atmospheric pollution is nothing to fear. Until then, the most pro-growth, free-market option around is off the table.