We need a grand bargain on climate change

It’s time for Barack Obama to seize the day and give bipartisanship a chance to help solve the climate change dilemma.

The stakes are huge. Fail, and we may have forfeited our last realistic chance to act soon enough and effectively enough to avoid global climate catastrophe. Succeed and the way becomes open for a global carbon tax that can get the job done.

Time’s running out. We can’t just dial back global temperature as if we had control of a thermostat by reducing our carbon emissions when it gets too hot. Wait much longer and we risk unleashing a runaway greenhouse effect that we will not be able to control by cutting human carbon dioxide emissions. 

The choices are between an Obama administration complex cap-and-trade system and a carbon tax, under which all the revenue will be rebated to every American every month.

A carbon tax was supported by Al Gore and by most economists, including Obama budget director Peter Orzag while he was head of the Congressional Budget Office in 2007. 

The good news is that a carbon tax has now also been embraced by Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson and Republican supply-side guru Arthur Laffer.

President Obama should invite the Republicans to craft a bipartisan carbon tax and rebate plan. If a deal emerges, we’ll all be winners. If the Republicans are unmasked as climate frauds, Obama can exert his political muscle in 2010 behind cap and trade or carbon taxes.

A carbon tax with monthly rebate checks to every American pushes all the right political buttons. It’s a zero new net revenue tax. It puts all the money back in people’s pockets every month to offset the tax. Since lower-income people use less energy, on average they will benefit, and are almost sure to spend all the money as economic stimulus. And the rebate can be structured to meet the concerns of conservative Democrats and Republicans from coal-using states of the Midwest and South

Carbon cap and trade has mainly the belief that it is politically viable to recommend it. It supposedly can be pushed through a Democratic Congress.

Carbon cap and trade will have large energy users purchasing and trading carbon pollution allowances. They also can buy so-called carbon offsets, from activities like tree planting, from anywhere on the globe. Carbon cap and trade is complex, open to manipulation by traders, and subject to wild market swings that discourage investment in the renewables we need.

Most important, as the Kyoto Protocol has shown, it just doesn’t work to cut global net carbon emissions. It’s too easy to game the system, for speculators to make money by manipulating offset markets, and to concoct unverifiable carbon offset schemes, or Madoff-style scams, with the assistance of corruptible officials in poor and desperate nations.

Under Kyoto, we are witnessing, for example, more and more methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, being released from melting Arctic permafrost, and ocean and land soaking up more and more heat as the ice and snow cover retreats.

Atmospheric carbon is now 385 parts per million and rising yearly, toward 600 to 700 ppm or more if we do nothing. Leading atmospheric scientists, like James Hansen of Columbia University, caution that we must reduce carbon to 350 ppm or risk losing control of planetary climate dynamics and face the consequences.

It’s time for Obama to exert his intelligence, courage and political legerdemain and lead the way toward a workable carbon tax for all our sakes, for our kids and their kids.

Roy Morrison is director of the Office for Sustainability at Southern New Hampshire University. His next book, “A New Way Together: Sustainability a 21st Century Guide” is forthcoming in 2009.