Let’s Pretend to Do Something about Climate Change

Dried up lakes,
Can use some aid;
Need much more,
Than “Cap and Trade.”

More than 190 nations have now agreed: Climate Change is bad and we ought to do something about it…let’s meet again someday to decide what. Naturally, low-lying islands want quicker action. So do lands whose life-giving glaciers are melting, or whose rivers are drying up, and whose wells have gasped their last.

These folks have reason to be peeved. Evidence mounts that a goodly chunk of their woe issues from the smokestacks and tailpipes of the rich.

Fortunately, the United States isn’t one of those victims. Yes, we do have a few losers, like the polar bears and walruses in Alaska, and all those ranchers and cotton farmers who never should have settled where they did. Thus with only a few local calamities to explain away, American corporations can claim to be acting out of good conscience, not guilt or duress, if they agree to cut emissions.

But that’s not good enough. What we need now is a serious incentive to pollute less. The best one, other than prison, is money. Let’s just imagine that Congress raises the gas tax by 10 cents per year for each of the next 10 years. Recalling the price spike of 2008, we know what effect that would have on the size of new cars.

Then let’s do the same for heating oil and natural gas—a prolonged gradual predictable price increase. We’d soon lick the recession simply by hiring workers to do home improvements to save money. Bonanza time for insulation, windows, drapes, caulk, storm doors, and plastic sheeting. Yes, part of that fuel tax revenue would pay the costs of such improvements for low-income home owners and tenants.

And let’s not forget coal. We’d tax that too, hence raising the price of electricity and starting a stampede to buy more efficient TVs, washers, dryers, computers, and devices to automatically shut down all the juice when the gadgets are turned off. Again, part of the tax revenue would subsidize the poor, and the rest would go to building the complex networks of wind, sun, water, and thermal generators needed to replace many of our expiring coal and oil plants. If existing power companies weren’t interested in the job, it could be given to a modern-day Tennessee Valley Authority. Needless to say, current subsidies to coal, oil, gas, and nukes should end pronto.

Of course we’re not going to get any of that. We’re getting “Cap and Trade,” instead. This hoax forces big polluters to buy indulgences when their effluent exceeds some government-assigned limit. These certificates allowing excess pollution will supposedly be bought from a few sainted companies that actually do manage to reduce their CO2 output. Others will come from owners of mythical new forests that will supposedly be planted where old forests were cut down. Europe has enjoyed a similar make-believe system for some years with very little CO2 reduction to show for it. And you’ll be further relieved to hear that the whole trading process will be handled by Wall Street.

Happily, China does seem a bit more committed to real change than we. Dictatorships can do that. One compelling reason is that they have many people and facilities at risk. Conversely, India, a democracy, is building tiny new cars so that a billion more people can pollute. Here in the United States, we prefer to simply retain the environmental status quo—where polluters can profit, politicians can pander, and the poor can perish.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.