Steve Chapman

So the president will act to curb emissions as best he can through heavy-handed regulation and extravagant subsidies of "clean" energy. The trouble with these clumsy remedies, says economist Adele Morris of The Brookings Institution, is that they often impose higher costs than the benefits they yield.

They would not be needed if the government taxed fuels according to their environmental side effects. Raise the price of gasoline and Americans would buy more efficient cars, drive less and take the occasional bus. Make coal more expensive and businesses would switch to fuels that pollute less. These adjustments would occur through the natural operation of markets, a process that favors the cheapest solutions.

Wouldn't a carbon tax impose a heavy burden on individuals and the economy? Actually, we could cut carbon dioxide emissions by half over the next decade and a half with a tax that would not be onerous -- the equivalent of 16 cents per gallon of gasoline, rising by 4 percent over inflation each year.

This modest impact could be offset with cuts in other levies to keep the total tax load stable. Corporate and personal income taxes, along with payroll taxes, discourage things we want: investment and work. Cutting them would have a positive effect on the economy. A carbon tax, by contrast, would discourage something we don't want: harmful emissions that linger in the atmosphere for centuries.

This approach, concludes Morris, would "promote economic growth, reduce budget deficits, reduce redundant and inefficient regulation, reduce unnecessary subsidies and reduce the costs associated with climate change."

Our kids and grandkids will thank us if we take action against climate change. But if we do it in a way that leaves them richer instead of poorer, their gratitude will be even greater.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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