Commentary & Opinion
12:35 pm
Tue January 8, 2013

Stephen Gottlieb: Global warming demands a BTU tax

Last night at the Egg I heard Bill McKibben talk about climate change. I was very proud of Joe and Alan and WAMC for organizing it and proud of the WAMC audience for coming out in droves to hear him. The message he brings is not a happy one but it is a message we have to hear and understand; more, it’s a message we have to act on.

McKibben’s message is that unless we stop putting carbon in the air, and fast, we will not be able to bequeath the world we live in to our children and grandchildren. Whatever other factors may contribute, manmade carbon pollution is forcing climate change. The world’s temperature has already risen. At the rate we are pumping carbon into the air, it gets worse fast.

Rising temperature drives both drought and floods. Warm air takes the water up, gathers it in larger rainclouds, and somewhere, bursts. McKibben told us that our production of grains dropped severely last year. Government drought maps show almost the entire Midwest in severe drought. Some grain prices doubled.

That’s our children’s future: less food, on less arable land; more soil carried off by huge floods or dust storms; oceans increasingly acid so they produce fewer fish; more cities underwater, or unlivable because their power and transit systems, roads, rails, paths, all underwater – so it won’t much matter if your homes were flooded because you won’t be able to live there anyway. This problem is serious and this problem is now.

But those of you in this radio audience know that already. So what can we do about it?

The policy answer has to be a BTU tax, a tax on all carbon fuels to discourage us from using them, and then returning the proceeds to the American people equally per capita, not by usage, so the tax is progressive, not regressive, and we get both fairer taxes and strong encouragement to save on carbon based fuels.

In other words we know how to do it. Clinton knew it in 1993 when he tried to get a BTU tax. He failed then. Why should this time be different? That’s the piece that depends on all of us.

Our job is not just to shake our heads but to act, to organize, to contribute, to write and call, to make rejecting a BTU tax politically impossible. If people want to work on fracking, which certainly contributes carbon pollution, or a host of environmental issues, that’s all to the good. But defeating global warming will require a systemic solution, one that undercuts all the forms of carbon pollution and does it in a powerful and overwhelming way. Of all the issues on the environmental plate now, the BTU tax is the one that makes big systemic change. Make sure to put some of your energies into that effort. Use the organizational benefits of all the other fights and bring them together on the one big thing that affects all the smaller issues, the one big thing that could actually change our slide into a world that is too hot, too dry, too barren, and under too much water to live in.

If you are looking for a group, try 350.org which Bill McKibben founded, or climaterealityproject.org/ founded by Al Gore. We’ve also supported the Union of Concerned Scientists for years. We can take action on global warming. Let’s do it for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, or because our humane or religious values demand it. But let’s do it.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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