By David Wallace-Wells
In the aftermath of the doomsday IPCC report, carbon taxes have looked to many in climate despair like a flare of hope — including a long discussion on the New York Times podcast The Daily that prompted about a dozen friends to email me asking about the new Nobel economics laureate William Nordhaus and his proposal for a carbon tax. That proposal was also endorsed on my favorite podcast, Vox’s The Weeds. Even Exxon, that climate villain, is now lobbying on behalf of a carbon tax — which might seem like a remarkable turn for a fossil fuel company, until you consider that they are hoping to trade that tax for corporate immunity in any climate-change lawsuits that might target them in the coming years. Should we take that deal?
Probably. That’s because climate change is an all-encompassing threat and we are, as the IPCC says, at the all-hands-on-deck, every-little-bit-helps stage of the crisis. But carbon pricing is no cure-all, and market forces, even when channeled toward the right goals on climate, are no surer bet to solve the problem of global warming than they were to solve problems like slavery, gender and racial injustice, or genocide. Which all makes me suspicious of any kind of grand bargain that nets only a modest tax on emissions.
That suspicion is twofold. First, as a way to impose at least some of the cost of carbon emissions on those who produce them, taxes are, absolutely, necessary. But even at very high rates, they seem to me insufficient to solve a problem this big. How big? The IPCC, not a hyperbolic body, offered a very clear analogy: a global mobilization like that which transformed the economies and cultures of the Allied nations during World War II. That this is a familiar analogy is unfortunate, because it blunts the intended impression: That mobilization was unprecedented in human history before and has never been matched since. We did not defeat the Nazis with a change to the marginal tax rate. Higher government revenues helped, of course, but only helped: There was also a draft, a nationalization of industry, widespread rationing. And while an ambitious carbon-pricing plan would push the world toward more green-energy innovation, it’s an open question just how fast market forces would work toward the necessary changes.
In part that is because the market, so far, has not delivered on climate. You have probably heard a lot about the green-energy revolution of the last couple of decades, which has yielded productivity gains in energy and cost reductions far beyond the predictions of even the most doe-eyed optimists. But it has not even bent the global curve of carbon emissions downward. In terms of emissions, we are, as a world, still growing, still making climate change worse. Over decades, the proportion of global energy use derived from renewables has not grown much. Which means that, billions of dollars and thousands of dramatic breakthroughs later, the planet is not really farther along than when hippies were affixing solar panels to their geodesic domes. In fact, it is less far along, because the market has not responded to these developments by seamlessly retiring dirty-energy sources and replacing them with clean ones. It has responded by simply adding the new capacity to the same system. To the market, this is growth; to human civilization, it is something close to suicide. We are now burning 60 percent more coal than we were just in the year 2000.
And energy is, actually, the least of it. We also need overhauls of the world’s transportation systems, its agriculture, its industry, and its infrastructure. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter, and China now pours more concrete every three years than the United States poured during the entire 20th century. Cryptocurrency now produces as much CO2 each year as a million transatlantic flights, and each round-trip flight from New York to London costs the Arctic three square meters of ice. Every year the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets — enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, we add five gallons.