A Ripe Moment to Speak Up on Climate Change?

Although climate change is perhaps the most serious threat to our future, the fact that most people have viewed this threat as distant and uncertain has made it difficult to rally support for policy responses.  But climate scientists have now published evidence linking global warming to the recent explosive growth of extreme weather around the globe—floods here, droughts there, and rapidly rising average temperatures. The United States, for example, has just recorded the hottest 12-month period on record, and much of the nation is wracked by extreme drought.

 As long as climate change remained a distant, abstract threat in the public mind, Paul Ryan and other leading Republican climate-change skeptics paid no political price for insisting that global warming needn’t be taken seriously. Now, with the realities of climate change staring voters in the face, that free pass is in jeopardy.  The vivid immediacy of today’s extreme weather has created an opportunity to hold climate change skeptics accountable for their obstructionism.

President Obama and his surrogates should travel to Paul Ryan’s own drought-ravaged district in Wisconsin to remind voters that both members of the Republican ticket are avowed climate-change skeptics.  Ryan, who has received substantial financial support from the Koch brothers, the most politically aggressive of all climate-change denialists, has voted consistently for their policy agenda.  He voted against allowing the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  He voted to prevent the Department of Agriculture from preparing for extreme weather emergencies like the drought that has destroyed this year’s crops in the Midwest.  He voted to eliminate White House climate change advisers. And he voted to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Department of Energy. Those votes attracted little scrutiny when climate change seemed a remote threat. It would be interesting to see the public’s reaction to them now.

Climate scientists themselves are quick to acknowledge that their estimates of the pace of climate change are highly uncertain.  They go on to stress, however, that uncertainty does not counsel inaction.  Recent simulations by MIT’s highly respected global climate change model, for example, estimated a one in ten chance that the average surface temperature of the earth would rise by more than 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.  An increase that large would melt the Arctic permafrost, releasing massive quantities of methane, which is fifty times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.  Life as we know it would be in jeopardy.

The good news is that this threat could be parried at relatively low cost.  The International Panel for Climate Change estimated that carbon tax of $80 per metric ton would stabilize global temperatures by 2050.  But even a tax of $300 per ton would add less than $3/gallon to the cost of gasoline.  Simply by switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles, most motorists could drive as many miles as before without spending any more on gas.

A carbon tax that was approved today but scheduled for gradual phase-in only after the economy had returned to full employment would kill several birds with one stone. In addition to curbing carbon emissions, it would provide an immediate incentive for businesses to invest heavily in technologies for adapting to higher fuel prices. (Businesses, which are sitting on mountains of cash, have little reason to invest right now because they already have sufficient capacity to produce more than people want to buy.) And the revenues from a carbon tax would solve the problem of budget deficits without having to raise income tax rates at all.

To his credit, President Obama persuaded his fellow Democrats in the House, then in the majority, to pass a comprehensive climate change bill in 2009 in the face of intense opposition by Republican climate skeptics.  But the lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate assured that the bill would go no further.  Prospects for adopting a carbon tax (or its functional equivalent, a cap-and-trade system) dimmed even further when Republicans recaptured the House in the Tea Party wave election in 2010.

Because no progress on this issue can occur as long as Republicans have the votes necessary to block reform, it makes little sense to blame the president for his lack of progress.  But Mr. Obama may never face a better opportunity to hold Republican obstructionists politically accountable.  Failure to seize this opportunity would justify a harsh judgment indeed from future generations.

Author: Robert Frank

Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and the co-director of the Paduano Seminar in business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business. His “Economic View” column appears monthly in The New York Times. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. He received his B.S. in mathematics from Georgia Tech, then taught math and science for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Nepal. He holds an M.A. in statistics and a Ph.D. in economics, both from the University of California at Berkeley. His papers have appeared in the American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, and other leading professional journals. His books, which include Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, Microeconomics and Behavior, Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke), Luxury Fever, What Price the Moral High Ground?, Falling Behind, The Economic Naturalist, and The Darwin Economy, have been translated into 22 languages. The Winner-Take-All Society, co-authored with Philip Cook, received a Critic's Choice Award, was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, and was included in Business Week's list of the ten best books of 1995. He is a co-recipient of the 2004 Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. He was awarded the Johnson School’s Stephen Russell Distinguished teaching award in 2004, 2010, and 2012, and its Apple Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005.

32 thoughts on “A Ripe Moment to Speak Up on Climate Change?”

    1. “Inaction in the face of uncertainty is no vice. Any action that benefits the many at the expense of a few is no virtue (even if the few benefit in the long run).” Pardon me while I get Paul Ryan’s speechwriters on the phone. And, if you order five “What Would Ayn Rand Do?” bracelets now, I’ll send you one free (just $10.99 for shipping and handling, which includes a spritz of Ayn’s sweat on each bracelet, so it’s totally worth it).

  1. A carbon tax could be made palatable to Republicans who take their responsibilities as citizens of our country seriously - I assume there are some - by saying it not only would be revenue neural, it could help small businesses. For every dollar the tax collects, a dollar is subtracted from what employers pay into Social Security. Labor becomes cheaper with no loss to workers’ incomes or to the Social Security fund. It is a perfect ‘free market’ solution because the effect is as if carbon based energy became more scarce and so more expensive, encouraging greater efficiency and use of alternatives- which market forces do every day.

    This or similar alternatives have always been an option and Obama can be criticized for not providing any leadership at all on the issue.

    1. Look, why is Obama supposed to magically achieve victory on an issue that the Democrats have run away from as a party? Why is he supposed to lead the charge of the Light Brigade every time?

  2. When do you think you can get the Chinese to agree to a carbon tax. I ask only because the Chinese, who already exceed USA CO2 emissions by 80%, are increasing CO2 emissions by 1.4Gt/yr. according to the international group that tracks CO2 the EIA. This means that China adds another USA worth of CO2 emissions every 4 years and the average CO2/capita rate is climbing about 1 ton/yr./person in China. How many times do you need to hear China say they will not agree to lower CO2 emissions until after 2020 before reality sets in? by 2020 China will be emitting 20+Gt/yr. of CO2 with the USA at about 4.5Gt/yr. The USA has already dropped from a 25% global contribution to its current 15% global contribution of annual CO2. By 2020 the USA will represent only 9% of worldwide emissions and even with reductions to zero emissions the USA would have little impact in reversing CO2.

    You also avoid reality in recognizing that green energy is still greatly dependent on fossil fuel energy as admitted by the German Environmental Minister.


    A carbon tax that isn’t worldwide is an ineffective tool which will do nothing to curb CO2 emissions and will only lead to the deaths of millions by making energy much more expensive for the poor. Go talk to any of the 800,000 families in Germany who couldn’t afford to heat their houses last winter how they feel about more expensive energy. You also avoid mentioning the 44Gt of annual GHGs being emitted from land use change that a carbon tax on fossil fuel will do nothing to reduce. It doesn’t help your political cause to offer views which are based on a multitude of missing information IMO.

    1. I can’t believe 800,000 German families were shivering in their homes last winter. That’s almost as bad as the US!

    2. We don’t have to wait for China. China is already pursuing an “all of the above” policy on energy generation, but with much greater emphasis on green sources than here in the US. You know how solar photovoltaic has dropped in price by over half in the last three years? That’s because China has gone hot into mass-production of solar panels.

      If we had a carbon tax, that put the cost of CO2 pollution into the price of oil/gas/coal, then the free-market itself would give an incentive to conserve and to innovation to solve the problems that you’ve listed. If we rebated the tax to individuals, like Alaska does with its oil revenues, then poor folks would get back more than they paid in higher fuel prices.

      I wish Obama would get it. After all, what’s the alternative? To just roll over and broil?

      1. Obama probably does get it - but where are the Democratic votes he would need to win on this issue? Actually, we don’t have them. Get more good Democrats into the House and Senate and then let’s chastise Obama for his alleged failures.

      2. Are you Chinese or just gullible? Where in the world did you get the idea that the Chinese are pursuing geen energy or that they are putting a much greater emphasis on alternative energy than the USA? You obviously have no clue as to the recent contracts China has signed to increase coal and oil imports or you are just trying to mislead others here. As far as China solar production you missed the memo that China has implemented a policy to limit expansion of solar:

        “In 2011, the industry faced the double-problem of excess production capacity and weak demand from Europe due to its sovereign debt crisis. The government was forced to issue a policy to limit production expansion. As a result, industry revenue is only expected to grow 14.2% from 2011 to 2012.”


        You can go on fooling yourself that China is going green and I’ll keep counting the coal and oil import increases and the 1.4GT of new CO2 that China will continue to add to the atmosphere each new year into the 2020s. In 2020 when China is emitting 22Gt/yr. of CO2 you can come back here and tell me again how green China is. lol

        1. I would like to suggest that anyone who uses the “he’s doing it, why can’t I?” strategy of derailing discussion, in particular with the inclusion of the “lol” moniker as though this blog were a junior high school chat room, should probably be given their own separate comment thread to populate (as I once saw on, I believe, Glenn Greenwald’s site). I very much appreciate the quality of the comments on RBC; I’ve seen takeover by bad-faith hijackers before, hate to see it happen here.

          1. Mr. B - You would prefer a continuation of comments based on irrational beliefs and factless politization as long as they fit your POV? Your pretense of superiority is a defense mechanism that fools only fools. If you don’t want to engage in discussion or comment on the content of my comments including the EIA data or the data of a lead IPCC author who I linked below to support my comments, that is your perogative. As for this being a junior high school chat room, the level of knowledge on energy and climate science indicated by some of the comments here would indeed support the notion that this is a junior high school level site and that includes the knowledge level of the author. Should you ever feel compelled to put on your big boy pants, come on over to Science2.0.

      3. Pam - more on China becoming less green.

        Li Fei, the owner of Chengxing Solar Company in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, committed suicide by jumping off a building, alarming the debt-ridden photovoltaic industry, reported First Financial Daily in Shanghai.

        Li ended his life after Chengxing was unable to repay a 20 million yuan (US$3.15 million) loan taken by another photovoltaic company called Zhongxi, for which Chengxing was the guarantor.

        The incident was a sign of the imminent collapse facing the Chinese photovoltaic industry, because of its lack of liquidity and mounting debts, noted First Financial Daily.

        It had become common for cash-strapped companies to postpone their payments, with letters of credit often maturing 150-200 days after the delivery of goods, thereby hurting their suppliers’ abilities to pay their suppliers, said First Financial Daily.

        Most companies in the industry were burdened with high debts, according to the newspaper. For example, Suntech Energy reported a debt of US$2.26 billion in the first quarter of this year, the same as the last quarter of last year, while Trina Solar’s debt grew 9.7% to US$1.13 billion.

        The newspaper quoted US investment bank Maxim Group as warning that China’s top ten photovoltaic companies had accumulated a combined debt of US$17.5 billion and the entire industry was teetering on the brink of collapse.


        1. Do yoy have any idea how bankruptcy works, economically? There’s a glut. Higher-cost companies lose money and fail. But their production lines don’t vanish; they are resold to lower-cost producers or vultures, and at the new, lower cost of capital, the lines become profitable. It’s called creative destruction. Real capitalism (as opposed to the crony, government-safety-netted, tax-breaked, finance variety) isn’t just about making profits, it’s just as much about going bust.

    3. Speaking of avoiding reality, if you don’t want to pay for higher energy prices now, will you pay for the environmental problems and adaptation measures later? Of course you won’t. So what is your plan for decarbonization?

      1. Dan - Based on data it may already be too late to decarbonize at the level required to meet the 2 degreeC by 2050 limit, as the amount of non-polluting energy build out required to meet a 2 degreeC warming cap is physically and economically improbable (without a major breakthrough in cheap easily deployable non-polluting energy). The idea that a global carbon tax is a solution looks to be magical thinking to me and a growing number of experts. Here is a new working paper from an IPCC author on why the carbon tax will not likely be able to be revenue neutral for the USA and how it would require 66% of all USA income tax by 2020 in order to meet the criteria needed for the USA’s share of keeping warming below 2 degreesC. BTW the IPCC’s own numbers show that if we were to spend all this money the amount of warming mitigation attributable to the USA by 2050 is roughly 3/10 of a degreeC. Without China and India agreeing the USA’s contribution to lowering future warming by itself is very small and will already be offset by China’s emissions growth by 2016. Do you understand this? We could go to 0 emissions and China will restore the USA’s share of emissions to the atmosphere in just 4 years.


        The reality is likely that we are past the threshold of physical and economic ability to meet a 2 degree warming cap by 2050. China is not going to shut down their economy and niether is President Obama. Is that reality enough for you Dan? If you think we aren’t already at the point where geoengineering and/or adaptation are our only “real” options left to prevent 2 degreeC warming by 2050, you need to supply me with some very persuasive facts.

    4. China is making great efforts at reducing CO2, realizing that agricultural productivity and water supplies are at risk. Also, the current carbon fee and dividend legislation (HR3242) which is proposed by Cong. Stark would require a carbon fee on Chinese (and all other imported) goods being sold here if they used carbon sources in their manufacture.

      So, China’s goods will be more expensive here if they used carbon sources, which will shift their preferences for energy to lower carbon sources - in that way their goods would be less expensive and more competitive here.

      1. Yes Jan you are extremely perceptive about China and the fact that China’s coal imports look like a hockey stick really supports your belief (sarc).


        And that is why China’s domestic production of coal looks like a hockey stick too.


        And that is why China is moving big into shale.


        Now go back to sleep where you can dream about China being a green energy country or that that Stark bill has any chance of passing. I’m sorry to be so direct but ignorance serves no useful purpose in dealing with this issue.

  3. Wingy2, you haven’t understood the post at all.

    1. A carbon tax encourages research on alternatives and research findings cross borders.

    2. China needs the American market and a punitive tax on all imports that do not raise the cost of carbon to what American firms pay will get their attention. While you might or might not remember, we managed pretty well before Chinese imports came on the scene. The point is to make it gradual and predictable.

    Your fear mongering is absurd. Truly absurd.

    1. Gus, how will you sell a trade war with China to the American people if it means they are deprived of their new toys from Apple etc? These things aren’t quite as easy as you might wish to believe.

    2. Gus sooner or later you have to stop lying to yourself. Unless you do you will continue to fall for the politically based nonsense presented in this article. I read the engineering, energy and science reports for myself. We are already spending tons of money on research in alternative energy and have already had enormous breakthroughs. I live in a scientific community and have friends working on non-silicon based solar cells that will be much cheaper and more abundant than silicon cells. I have no doubts that solar at 75 cents/watt is a given within 7-10 years, do you disagree? We also already have wind power technology in the USA that can generate power at 2 cents/kWh and eliminates the need for the rare Earth elements that have forced GE to build wind turbines in China and Apple to build Ipods in China.

      We don’t need a carbon tax that will only end in the killing of millions of poor people around the world. We are already starving enough people to death with our corn ethanol insanity.

      1. How in the name of all that is intelligent will a carbon tax in this country kill people anywhere else? I follow the research as well but I also know something about economics and not paying for serious ‘externalities.’

        The point is not to have a trade war, the point is not to force American businesses that pay the costs of their production to compete against businesses that do not. We are a big enough market that no one wants a trade war with us. This is a very simple idea, and when coupled with American jobs, seems pretty straightforward given the stakes.


        1. Gus - Let me start with the fact that I disagree with the assumption that an effective revenue neutral carbon tax is possible. More on why later. Next let me make you aware that deaths from fuel poverty are already a reality. Hopefully you understand that raising the price of energy leads to an increase in deaths as there is a direct relation between increased energy costs and increased fuel poverty.


          Now consider the price of a global carbon tax. If it is too low, it may not lower CO2 enough in many countries to effectively meet the 2050 target. If it is too high it will exclude major polluters from participating and they would be unable to afford the higher energy costs and that would increase fuel poverty. The working paper outlines the need for a global carbon tax set at $143.00/ton to meet the 2050 target of limiting CO2 to 450PPM that the IPCC scientists recommend. The problem is that at that cost, only countries representing 13Gt/yr. (39%) of global CO2 emissions could afford to participate without catabolizing their economies. In the case of China, their maximum tax cap is $29.00/ton and there is no way that they will sacrifice their economy by raising taxes elswhere to make up the $114.00/ton difference. If you disagree explain why and help me understand your POV. Please read the following for the numbers I discuss above.


          So countries that have low carbon tax caps will necessarily be forced to tax other parts of their economy to afford fuel in order to meet the 2050 goal. As this is unlikely they would necessarily cut back on fuel, thus increasing fuel poverty and thus leading to more deaths.

          We could set the carbon tax lower to allow a greater number of countries to participate say $10.00/ton, but then we will not lower CO2 enough to be meaningful and we will not see a real reduction in CO2 to avoid the current path (assuming no major breakthrough for a cheap, abundant, non-polluting energy discovery). This would be a case of symbolism over substance which the author of this article might be happy with as it helps political careers in that you can fool alot of people alot of the time, in an election cycle, but the root problem isn’t solved. So if you got a watered down carbon tax that won’t avert 2 degreesC of warming by 2050, are you good with that as long as it allows for people like this author to promote his political half-truths?

          1. This thread is getting truly bizarre. I NEVER suggested a global carbon tax. I have no idea how such a thing could even be devised let alone enforced. Nor am I sure it would be a good idea, in part for the reasons you allude to. I suggested an American one. And Europe would hopefully follow along with Japan and other prosperous countries. I am not much interested in Botswana, Haiti, or Bangladesh. We do not need to get the whole world on board.

            My point I thought was a simple one: advanced economies produce disproportionate amounts of CO2. If they develop technologies based on responding to market incentives that imitate a growing shortage of carbon based energy sources by raising their price, they reduce their own disproportionate emissions and as the technology perfects itself and becomes cheaper, it spreads. China may not be able to afford one now, but as the technology cheapens, they can go there. The point is to promote R&D of the technology as quickly as possible without trying to decide in advance what the best technology will be.

            Why you have such trouble following a line of reasoning that the market has in fact accomplished repeatedly throughout recent history when a genuine shortage develops is utterly beyond me.

            But apparently you have no problem with ‘externalities’ because you have a touching faith that most corporations will do the right thing even when it costs them money. Not that they ever have. But then, I guess that’s your faith.

            I prefer reality plus reason.

          2. Gus - I was under the impression we were talking about actual solutions for reducing global CO2 to a level that the scientists indicate that we need to in order to meet the 2050 target I referred to above, and in order to avoid disaster. The USA is not the problem. EIA data indicates that the USA is already lowering CO2 at an annual rate that is greater than the 17% reduction of 2005 emissions by 2020 set by the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill? In fact, no developed country in the world has lowered their CO2 emissions, since 2005, more than the USA. Are you even aware? It is already happening without cap and trade or a carbon tax but from your comments you don’t even seem to be aware. Have you seen the EIA data on CO2 emissions growth in undeveloped countries? Your comment indicates that you have the false belief that the developed countries are the largest polluters even after I provided the working paper data indicating that only 13Gt of the 33Gt of annual CO2 emissions. Did you even read that? I have not even brought up the land use change contributions of GHGs in the undeveloped countries which are greater than the fossil fuel emissions from developed and undeveloped countries, and a carbon tax does nothing in regard to land use change.

            You really are uninformed and I’m wasting time as you seem more interested in symbolic/political gestures that aren’t solutions like a USA only carbon tax. As I have already indicated on this thread, the USA can go to 0 annual emissions and they will be replaced by the Chinese in just 4 years from today. This is all fact and verified by the EIA data. A USA only carbon tax does zip, it is pointless, nothing more than a symbolic gesture.

  4. I really, really want to urge the RBC team to consider a separate thread for these sorts of comments. This thread, which is so full of ridiculous strawman ‘arguments,’ obvious and egregious misrepresentations of the post, and pseudo-scientific nonsense(“catabolize?”) that not one of the regular RBC commenters has bothered to answer, I think speaks for itself. If some feel the need to pollute thoughtful discourse, let them sit at the kid’s table. I’m asking nicely - Mark, Jonathan, etc - please do not let this crap continue.

    1. Mr. B - From the article, “Recent simulations by MIT’s highly respected global climate change model, for example, estimated a one in ten chance that the average surface temperature of the earth would rise by more than 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.”

      I just wanted to point out that this is crap since you seem concerned about crap at this site. I would be concerned with the level of writing here more than the level of comments. Can you run climate model simulations, have you ever worked with climate models? I have and I can get a climate model to to show a 14 degreeF temperature rise if you want (U of C). One climate model at MIT is meaningless and the author is misleading readers here. There are several new scientific papers out on modeling that have dispelled the 12 degree high end scenario. I do enjoy your phony pretense of concern for site quality though especially given your inability to recognize nonsense that exists in the body of this article. Again if you want to put on big boy pants and come over to Science2.0 you are welcome and you might actually learn something about energy and climate change.

      1. And what scientific papers might they be, Windy2? You have published links in your prevoius posts.

        There are so many posts around the web from fake sceptics of the “Look! A squirrel!” or “News just in! Global Warming debunked!” variety that any assertions like yours have to taken with a heavy dose of salt, mayeb even salts.

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