Climate solutions and carbon dividends

Peter Barnes, Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide is the full title.  This simple book is written in the form of punchlines and cartoons but it’s still one of the more insightful treatments of the topic.  He is skeptical of a carbon tax:

A carbon tax will never be high enough to do the job.

A low carbon tax would create the illusion of action without changing business as usual.

His alternative proposal has four steps:

1. Carbon cap is gradually lowered 80% by 2050.

2. Carbon permits are auctioned.

3. Clean energy becomes competitive.

4. You get an equal share in the form of permit income.

The "carbon dividends" of course are intended to make the tax politically palatable.  Naturally I am worried by the idea of revenue addiction, not to mention the general practice of redistributing income from business to citizens simply because it is popular to do so.  It might feel pretty good at first but we don’t want to encourage Chavez-like behavior on the part of our government.

A broader question is whether the carbon dividends in fact make the citizenry better off.  First there is the question of the incidence of the initial carbon tax, which of course falls on individuals one way or another.  Second, does just sending people money, collectively, make the populace better off?  Aggregate demand effects aside, will the fiscal stimulus make the citizenry as a whole better off?  No.  Will printing up more money and sending it to everyone, even if that is popular, make people better off?  No.

(As an aside, does the Humean quantity theory experiment redistribute wealth from corporations — which don’t sleep on pillows and thus cannot wake up in the morning to "more money" — to individuals, who do sleep on pillows?  Or is the corporate veil fully pierced?  Just wondering…)

I fear versions of this idea whose (possible) popularity rests on tricking voters.  Being pro-science also means being pro-economic science. 

The general point remains that most discussions of global warming focus on prices and technologies alone, without incorporating realistic models of politics.  By the way, if you think John McCain is a straight talker, try this for yikes


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