Editorial: A Titanic collision looms; carbon tax on the docket

A Titanic collision looms
Climate change was back in the news this week as an international panel of scientists released a report that found — with 95 percent certainty — that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades. More importantly, it warns that sea levels could potentially rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue to accellerate. Storms, as demonstrated in recent years, are predicted to be more fierce and more frequent.
The report, the fifth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since it was founded in 1988, is significant because it puts to rest claims of skeptics that human activity has little bearing on climate change. The group’s summaries, which are published every five or six years, are used by nations around the world as “the definitive assessment of the risks of climate change,” according to a recent report in the New York Times.
Of particular concern is a new estimate that temperatures could increase from a low of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit to above 5 degrees, with a higher probability of seeing more than a 5-degree increase if carbon dioxide levels double by the end of the century. The study reported that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased by 41 percent since the Industrial Revolution (start of the 20th century). Scientists said temperatures would likely increase more at the poles, possibly as much as 10 degrees F, leading to widespread melting of land ice and extreme heat waves.
If, on the other hand, countries were successful in limiting the increase of carbon dioxide to the most optimistic levels, increases in the rise of sea levels could be held to as little as 10 inches, just two inches more than was seen in the past century.
That report comes on the heels of earlier reports that found:
• Global temperatures were warmer than at any time in the past 4,000 years.
• The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit more than 400 parts per million this past May, exceeding the well-known limit of 350 parts per million that is the namesake of 350.org. The 400 parts per million is thought to be higher than at any point in the past 3 million years.
“It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” Ralph Kellings, who runs a monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, told the Times in May.
The solution is obvious, but the political will across much of the globe remains weak. The consequences are just as obvious: “If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, told Times reporter Justin Gillis. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”
To combat the worst of these climate change scenarios, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, have recently introduced legislation that would establish a carbon tax and invest in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies. Specifically, the legislation would:
• Establish a tax of $20 per ton on carbon or methane equivalent, rising 5.6 percent a year over a 10-year period. The tax, called a fee, would be applied upstream, or at the coal mine, the oil refinery, the natural gas processing point, or the point of importation and would apply to 2,869 of the largest fossil fuel polluters, Sanders’ office says, covering about 85 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
• Generate $1.2 trillion over the next decade and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 20 percent from 2005 levels, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.
• Ensure the disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process for natural gas.
• Use the taxes earned for weatherizing 1 million homes per year; tripling the budget for renewable energy research and development; creating a sustainable technologies finance program that would leverage $500 billion for investments in renwable energy, advanced transportation projects and energy efficiency programs.
• Ensure all countries face a similar tax so the playing field is level for all producers competing in the U.S. market.
• Use some of the taxes to reduce the national debt by $300 billion over 10 years.
The bill would also use three-fifths of the carbon taxes raised to fund a rebate program modeled after Alaska’s oil dividend to provide a monthly rebate to every legal U.S. resident. Sanders says the mechanism is the most “progressive way to ensure that if fossil fuel companies jack up prices, consumers and families can offset cost increases on fuel and electricity.”
The legislation may overreach, but it launches the conversation where it should be launched: a punitive tax on the human behavior that is pushing the world’s environment toward calamity. Pleading for voluntary reductions isn’t working.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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