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Is John Dingell for real? Floating a carbon tax

By Carla Wise, 9.7.2007
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As summer fades to fall, days shorten, nights cool, crickets sing each evening outside our open windows, and my daughter goes back to school. Fall brings optimism, and I wonder, will this summer be known as the moment when we began truly doing something to rein in global warming?

What made me wonder was a headline I ran across recently in the New York Times. It read:

What is John Dingell really up to?

John Dingell, you may know, is the powerful 81-year-old congressman from Michigan who has been a champion of the U.S. auto industry for over 50 years.  He has prevented any real increase in fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks since the 1970s, and as recently as last winter was still questioning the scientific consensus that global warming is a serious and growing danger to the world.  
This summer, Mr. Dingell seemed committed to defending the auto industry and stopping progress on energy independence and greenhouse gas reductions.  He blocked higher fuel efficiency standards in the house version of an energy bill, and he tried to add a provision that would have prevented states from imposing tighter standards on carbon-dioxide emissions from cars than the federal government.

So what is he up to now?  Well, Mr. Dingell is promising to propose a new carbon tax.  He plans to unveil a major bill this fall aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions 60 to 80 percent over the next four decades.  (The 80 percent reduction figure is often provided by climate scientists as a level likely to prevent the most devastating effects of climate change.)  This bill will include a steep carbon tax on fuels that emit greenhouse gases. 

The question is, why?  Mr. Dingell himself has suggested that his aim is in part to highlight the high (and unpopular) cost of slowing global warming.  Maybe he is trying to divert attention away from anything the auto industry perceives as a threat.  Or has he undergone a conversion that he hopes to spread across Congress and the country?

Many leading economists, policy folks, and environmentalists have argued quite compellingly that a carbon tax is the best, most efficient, most fair, and least bureaucratic approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to save the planet from real devastation. A carbon tax, which raises the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, encourages businesses and families to use less and cleaner energy.  The revenue it generates can then be used to cut, say, payroll taxes to cushion the blow of more expensive gasoline and home heating, and to invest in renewable, non-polluting energy sources.

However, the conventional wisdom is that supporting such a tax is political suicide, and Dingell’s fellow democrats are afraid to endorse such a plan.  So perhaps he’s just posturing.

Still, it’s the first suggestion I’ve heard that anyone in Congress may propose a plan to move the U.S. towards reversing our current greenhouse gas emissions path quickly enough to avoid a global climate disaster.  It will be very interesting to see what Mr. Dingell proposes, and who is listening.  The optimism of fall allows me to hope we may be ready to get serious.

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