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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has a big, bold, multitrillion-dollar plan for addressing climate change. So does her rival Joe Biden. Likewise former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. And, of course, Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., whose entire campaign is structured around the climate crisis.

These candidates, to their credit, have offered thoughtful solutions for addressing the most pressing policy challenge of our time. Their proposals are highly detailed and thorough, often running to dozens of pages in length.

And it’s precisely because they’re so detailed and thorough that it’s so bizarre none of them explicitly mentions the obvious, no-brainer tool for curbing carbon emissions: putting a price on carbon.

Catherine Rampell mug

Catherine Rampell

A carbon tax (or its cousin, a cap-and-trade system) is almost universally embraced by economists on both the left and the right. With good reason, too.

Taxing carbon means pricing in, upfront, the implicit costs that come from using fossil fuels — especially, though not exclusively, the cost of warming our planet.

This approach has two main benefits.

The first is that it immediately nudges consumers and businesses away from purchasing carbon-intensive products, because (duh) those products get more expensive.

The second is that, over the longer run, it motivates entrepreneurs and investors to develop new green technologies, because they know they can make money as customers seek out cheaper, lower-carbon-footprint alternatives. Capital organically moves to wherever scientists and investors actually believe the most promising technologies lie, which might be ones that haven’t even been invented yet.

“Pollution pricing policies bring out great American ingenuity,” says University of Illinois economist Don Fullerton.

That’s in stark contrast to a more top-down approach, in which the government requires or subsidizes the use of specific clean technologies. These kinds of mandates can distort demand toward technologies that were promising yesterday but will be bested by other (cheaper, more efficient) technologies tomorrow; or they might just benefit the producers that have the most persuasive lobbyists and valuable voting blocs (for example: ethanol).

To be clear, the candidates’ proposals include many other good ideas. They all say we should eliminate subsidies for fossil-fuel companies.

They all boost federal investment in and incentives for R&D in clean technology. This is critically necessary, especially for basic research, which private companies might not be sufficiently incentivized to undertake on their own.

But then things go off the rails.

The plans devote a lot of verbiage to talking about the magical properties of government procurement — that is, using the deep pockets of the government to purchase more energy-efficient products. Warren, for instance, analogizes her own plan, which includes a $1.5 trillion federal procurement commitment, to the industrial policy America previously undertook for the space race and our mobilization against Nazi aggression.

But in both of those historical comparisons, “The goal wasn’t to create a commercial product,” points out David Popp, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in environmental economics. “The government was the consumer.”

Just because the public sector buys more energy-efficient lightbulbs, electric cars or solar panels doesn’t mean the (much larger) private sector will, absent price incentives. Especially if we add conditions to the production of those green goods that actually increase their costs to consumers, as some of these plans do.

Warren requires that any green technologies that come out of her taxpayer-financed R&D be manufactured in America, even if they can be made more efficiently elsewhere.

But other green technologies have achieved lower costs and more widespread adoption precisely because of the relatively free movement of ideas, people and production, as University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Gregory F. Nemet notes in his new book, “How Solar Energy Became Cheap.”

So why is a carbon tax MIA in these big, splashy plans that somehow found room for so many tangential provisions?

Presumably, one reason is that raising taxes is unpopular, as Inslee learned the hard way when he unsuccessfully backed a carbon tax for Washington state. Especially if that tax appears regressive, though it needn’t be.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that these candidates (and the many supporters of the well-intended Green New Deal) are trying to solve multiple social problems with the same blunt policy instrument. But by mashing two separate problems together, we become less effective — or in any event, slower — at solving either.

We get only one crack at curbing climate change. If we truly believe it’s an existential crisis, that means we don’t have the luxury of abandoning the most effective policy tool available for solving it — or piggybacking a bunch of other social objectives onto the solution.

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Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

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(32) comments

Climatehoax

All you pro carbon tax advocates, how much tax are you going to charge the people responsible for the burning oil tanker? I wager that is putting more carbon into the atmosphere than probably a couple of thousand people would in a life time, maybe more. One of those smart carbon scientists should figure that out, It’d be verrrrry interesting. So, why should I be penalized with high prices when stuff like this can wipe out the efforts of thousands of people. It’s like going to maDonalds getting a Big Mac, large fries , 2 apple pies, and a DIET drink so you don’t get fat.

oldhomey

Then how did you get so fat-headed, Climate?

capedcrusader

[smile]

Redwall

Rampell "Taxing carbon means pricing in, upfront, the implicit costs that come from using fossil fuels — especially, though not exclusively, the cost of warming our planet." Implicit costs? Not exclusively? Planetary costs? Seriously? First of all, if you can't explain your subject matter better than that, better stay home and save the gas and pollution motoring to the next Dem hissy fit climate change rally. Secondly, there are too many layers of B.S. to take this seriously, that is, is global warming/climate change real? If it is real is it man made? If it is real and man made can man reverse it? Can we really believe a tax will save the world? How many years of taxation will it take to save the world? Then of course we only have 10 1/2 years until the world becomes uninhabitable according to all those scientists. Six of those years will go by under Trumps remaining term(s). Week after week the Fibune dumps these ill-thought out exercises in Progressive journalistic banality on its readers. Good grief.

mocha1

And today, Joe Biden, who had a thoughtful solution to global warming promised that if elected he would cure cancer. They must thing we are all idiots, and they still cannot understand why Hillary lost.

capedcrusader

Aren't you just a little fuzzy wuzzy ball of delight.

oldhomey

I haven't seen his remarks yet, mocha, but he in the last year of the Obama administration headed an effort to organize the research efforts to defeat cancer, so I expect he is steeped in that research and that his comments were more than the empty rhetoric that you suggest it is.

mocha1

I was reading this article until she stated the Dem candidates had thoughtful solutions and I gagged and did not waste anymore of my time. Went outside and burnt a tire as an offering to the Liberal Goddess of Global Warming. With a cold Corona as an offering to the Lib Goddess of open borders.

oldhomey

Gosh, what a wit, mocha. Do you do emoticons, too?

DMoney

So basically short term "pain" for long term "gain". People who rely on carbon-intensive products and carbon-intensive jobs will lose but eventually we'll be better for it due to innovation. Ok, fine. Why is this concept of "no pain, no gain" evil when it comes to Trump's tariffs?

oldhomey

Because everybody who has looked at tariffs has come away saying there is no "gain" to be had in them. They simply don't work. But you go ahead and put your faith in the God of Bankruptcy. If he tells you tariffs are easy and good, you go ahead and believe him.

DMoney

It takes a minimal amount of logic to see that they would absolutely work, given a relatively short amount of time. China is dependent on us to sustain it's economy. We are not dependent on China for ours. China would crumble--we would face inconvenient price increases at Wal Mart. You don't need to be a master economist to know that.

oldhomey

Well, I see a minimal amount of logic at work at work in your mind regarding tariffs, D. They are the antithesis of free trade, the hallmark of capitalism. Are you a commie? They rupture international competition and destroy mutual benefits of international trade. They end up raising the price of everything while adding to the tax burden of the nation applying the tariffs. Have you seen any CEOs or economists rushing to the defense of Trump on this issue? No, they are universally condemning his tariffs. You and his base of voters, in lieu of not being able to forgive him for shooting somebody in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue, are the only ones forgiving him and supporting him on tariffs. China is no more dependent on us to sustain its economy than we are dependent on China to sustain our economy. It is not 1949 anymore, D, it is 2019, and we live in a global, interdependent economy now. We have an egotistical, failed bum of a businessman running our country, and he is doing his best to destroy what has taken decades to build.

martian2

here we go with D changing the goal line again. Comparing tariffs with carbon tax is again like comparing apples and oranges. Carbon tax would help spur innovation, a cleaner planet, increase jobs, expand the economy and productivity. While tariffs do none of that. That should clear things up for ya.

DMoney

Yet again you fail to connect the dots between the main column and my response. I'm not wasting my time clearing it up but I'd suggest re-reading the column and use a little analytical thinking if you can muster it.

Climatehoax

FREE ID ‘s are available to voters but the DemoRats scream bloody murder that it is still to difficult and costly for the least able to get one to vote. BUT, let’s nail those people with a carbon tax, I suppose since it’s a DemoRat idea, THAT won’t be a hardship. Forcibly extracting money from hard working people will not stop Mother Nature from climate change, She’s been doing it FOREVER.

PhysicsIsFun

Well that certainly clears it up!

Cassandra2

As with many sources of pollution, the true costs are never discussed. It costs millions or trillions to mitigate the costs of plastics pollution. And the cost of nuclear energy is, effectively, infinite since the waste must be safeguarded forever. But the climate deniers always want to eat their cake and have it, too. They never want to pay the actual cost of their greedy lifestyle and prefer to saddle future generations with the debt--in this case an unlivable planet.

Climatehoax

Greedy lifestyle? You mean living just like you do?

canman

Until the rest of the world is on board to address climate issues, carbon taxes will do little good in the grand scheme.

oldhomey

Well, canman, 40 countries so far have adopted some sort of cap and trade or carbon tax system, even China. Look it up on the internet. Here is a taste of what you will find: "Action in the past few years has been fast and furious. Sightline’s Kristin Eberhard summarizes: "In 2015, Portugal launched a carbon tax, and South Korea implemented a cap-and-trade program. California expanded its cap-and-trade program, initially launched in 2012, to cover 85 percent of it GHG emissions. "After abolishing its carbon price in 2014, Australia launched a new “safeguard mechanismâ€â€”a modified form of cap-and-trade—in 2016. In addition to its carbon tax, which has been in place since 2008, in 2016, British Columbia put a limit and price on pollution from industrial facilities (especially targeting coal-fired power plants and liquefied natural gas facilities). In 2018, BC will expand its carbon tax to cover fugitive emissions and forest slash-pile burning and raise the tax by $5 per year. "The United States-shaped hole in the fight against climate change is increasingly conspicuous. In 2017, Ontario, Canada, launched a cap-and-trade program, and Alberta, Canada, launched a new carbon tax for transportation and heating fuel emissions. Canada’s federalist experiment around carbon pricing paid off: four different provinces are running four different programs, and now the federal government is ready to implement a national price in 2018. But the federal requirements leave plenty of room for each province to tailor its own solution. Mexico will also launch a national carbon price in 2018. "Chile’s carbon tax, in the works since 2014, took effect in 2017. South Africa expected to launch a carbon tax in 2017, but delayed the implementation."

capedcrusader

Catherine should talk with Buggs Raplin. He's been discussing it for years.

martian2

that would be a waste of anyone's time. People like him are too far gone, just look at Hoaxer.

Climatehoax

To far gone? I’ve got more common sense in my little toe than all the Trib libs put together, but keep it up, you give me a laugh 😆

johnnybragatti

Dudesickle ...you are certifiably suffering from late stage dementia, Alzheimers ,alcoholism and severe drug abuse. Ya'll need to read your own comments, at some point in time. You may be able to see.......but I doubt the ____ out of it.

PhysicsIsFun

Common sense is vastly over rated.

DMoney

You, and elderly gentleman, support a person who openly and repeatedly mocks the elderly. Huh.

oldhomey

Well, I have no idea how much support Physics gives to johnny, D, but coming from you, that is one of the lamest attempts at a put-down that I have ever seen. You, who continually tries to assure the rest of us how you think Donald Trump is a terrible human being that you wish you didn't have to vote for, spend hours a day defending every terrible thing Trump does in his presidency. Shame on you.

DMoney

It wasn't a put down. It was a statement of my surprise that the indirect victim of a prejudicial insult would in turn, offer support to the perpetrator. I don't get it. If you can provide one shred of evidence that I've ever supported or defended Trump's morality or decency as a human being, I'll go away for a week again. We both know I'm not going anywhere because I've only defended his policy and basic rights to fair treatment as an American citizen.

oldhomey

So, D, the rest of us should give you a pass because you openly support a president who according to a two-year investigation committed crimes of obstruction of justice? We should accept your support of a president who has openly said he will listen to agents of foreign governments if they offer him advantages against his opposition in the next election, and he will not report it to the FBI, even though we know foreign governments are actively trying to destroy our elective process? Should we give you a pass because you support a president who has flied so often and so openly that he has become internationally the boy who cried "Wolf" once too often, and now nobody is willing to accept the president of the U.S. at his word that Iranians attacked two oil tankers in the Gulf of Hormuz? These are just the latest transgressions by this lout and corrupt egotist who has seized the controls of power in this country. If you want me and anybody else to believe that you have not defended Trump's morality and decency as a human being, perhaps you should begin to join the chorus of Americans who stand up and shout "No!" when the president so openly lies and acts corruptly. As a parent, would you hold your silence when one of your kids kicked and beat another sibling because , on the whole you thought the naughty one was well-meaning?

martian2

yep thats they way it goes homey. What has admiration and respect ever got this country any way. Now the rest of the world gets a good laugh, shakes their head in disbelief, wonders what the heck went wrong. That's a whole lot better than admiration and respect. And if we are lucky, we might have another war on our hands. Yes its better to be known as down and dirty than to be admired and respected.

DMoney

You still haven't said what admiration and warm feelings (other than because of our military and economic strength) have gotten us. I'm still waiting. ..

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