The carbon conversation

There is an old folk story about how if you put a frog in to a pot of boiling water it will jump out but if you put it in a pot of cold water and slowly heat it to a boil, the frog will stay in the pot and cook to death.  While this anecdote itself is false (the frog jumps out either way), there is truth to the idea of things that change subtly are not noticed or responded to.  About ten years ago I lost a significant amount of weight and my wife did not notice until I was down almost 30 pounds while others that I saw less regularly noticed changes sooner.  This is common and as humans we are less apt to notice incremental changes that happen subtly over time.  This also appears to warrant some merit when it comes to climate change.  We see our USDA plant hardiness zone maps change, ranchers having to move cattle hundreds of miles north to find them water, insects devouring our northern forests in habitats they never lived before, more frequent forest fires that cannot be contained for weeks, floods that ravage cities, air quality issues, a lack of snow in regions that thrive on winter sports, and more.  In general we as a society tend to pause, note that the individual items are strange and move on with our normal day to day activities.  If we were able to collectively take a step back and look at the how our planet has truly changed in the last ~30 years we would likely be more eager to make a change regarding our dependency on fossil fuels.  It is human nature to have a difficult time dealing with an enemy that we do not see and whose consequences are doled out unpredictably over various geographies.  In general, humanity is disconnected from experiencing some components of climate change by spending so much time in our virtual environments.  Our cars, homes, and offices all have climate controls that we take for granted and in general allow us not to have to worry about the weather, much less the climate.  Our culture increasingly lives in the perpetual present and more and more has little time for thinking long term.  Even if the psychological barriers to taking proactive action were removed, defeating the lobbyists who represent the fossil fuel industry is an uphill battle but one where more and more headway is being made thanks to the hard work of the Citizens Climate Lobby and others.  Despite all of the government corruption we hear about in nations around the globe on a variety of issues, it is getting harder to deny taking action on climate change and the number of politicians willing to discuss true options for change is growing.

The idea of putting a price on carbon emissions has been a topic of discussion for decades with only a small percentage of countries able to work through the politics of implementing any.  One of the core issues with a carbon tax or fee is ensuring that the program would accomplish the desired goal of reducing carbon emissions without a significant negative impact on the economy.  The fact that we are already paying a significant price for carbon emissions is frequently overlooked because it is difficult to precisely measure.  Carbon pollution is accelerating climate change, changing natural patterns and creating atmospheres for more significant and more frequent weather related events.  We see heavier downpours that result in flooding and mudslides, more intense droughts that lead to bigger and longer lasting wildfires, rising sea levels with warmer ocean temperatures lead to higher coastal storm surges and ocean acidification, warmer temperatures are causing insect and animal habitat changes, and more…  Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, did a report on severe weather in North America and found that weather-related insurance losses have risen by almost five times in the last three decades, and that insured losses between 1980 and 2011 amounted to $510 billion. The report points to climate change and says, “Anthropogenic climate change is believed to contribute to this trend”.  To add some additional context, in 2012 Superstorm Sandy cost taxpayers $65 billion.

So, if we want to improve the overall health of our planet and we know that carbon emissions are a significant cause of issues, how do we change?  To date, in the United States we have tried to entice people to change by offering rebates and tax credits on energy efficient home upgrades, renewable energy, and cleaner running automobiles.  This approach yields some results but has done little to make the type of impact that is needed.  The true solutions for our current issues is to put a price on carbon emissions.  Once put in place we would see businesses and consumers begin to make very different decisions.  To avoid serious economic issues it would need to be implemented wisely.  In addition, a carbon tax should be thought of as iterative, something that will need tending and some tweaks to remain effective.  Some governments have taken the approach of implementing the tax on a staircase approach where carbon emissions cost $10 a ton and eventually they cost $15 a ton and so on.  Other governments have taken a fee and dividend approach and others have negated other existing taxes to offset costs for citizens.  The potential approaches to take in the United States are numerous and there are many other places who have jumped in earlier and can provide details to learn from.  One thing that seems clear is that it is likely best to let economists create carbon tax legislation as they would be best suited to truly understand the impacts and how to best protect the economy.

Once implemented, we would see the conversations and actions within society change like flicking a switch.  This type of legislation would put us on the path of a sustainable climate by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning us to a clean energy economy.  In the first quarter of 2013, the big five oil companies (Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Shell) earned a combined $331 million per day.  The most profitable companies are getting richer while we all pay the price.  So, the ask here is that you help the carbon conversation move forward and become more mainstream.  There is no need to run from the discussion out of fear of escalating costs and economic downturn.  We can work with our leadership to ensure we begin paying the cost in a thoughtful and appropriate way to ensure sustainability of what is truly important to us.

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