There’s a saying here in the West when you’re sniveling too much. The term is “cowboy up,” and it means, “Suck it up.” It’s “buck up, little camper” for grownups. Here’s a sample use: If you’re a cowhand who just tore a thumb off in a roping accident, you need to cowboy up and bite on a stick while Aunt Thelma stitches you with her vet kit.
A contemporary example of the need to cowboy up occurs, in of all places, the politics of climate change. Here’s how: It’s seen as gospel these days that to mention the T-word (taxes) is political suicide. Nowhere is this truer than in the world of climate policy, where virtually all politicos recognize the need to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions to control climate. But few are willing to buck up and talk about taxing carbon, a simple solution to climate change.
A carbon tax is one of two approaches we might use to make it more expensive to pollute, adding a levy to anything that causes carbon dioxide emissions, whether from fuel, natural gas or electricity. There are some nifty ways to get at this without hurting the little guy. For example, you might jack the price of gas up to $10 a gallon but reduce income tax proportionately. You can incentivize people away from gasoline, without making them starve or miss their rent payments.
The other option is called “cap and trade.” Under this scheme, total allowable CO2 emission would be capped at, say, current levels. But this ceiling on emissions would drop every year, and everyone would have to reduce their emissions accordingly or be forced to pay by buying pollution permits. If a polluting enterprise can’t affordably reduce its emissions, it would simply have to buy more permits. If it can easily reduce emissions, it might be able sell the credit for emissions reduction beyond the requirement of the cap to another polluter. Pick the cheaper option. The idea here is that those who can most cost-effectively cut emissions would do so first. This is the only policy scheme that is getting any traction in Washington, and it’s widely understood that forthcoming climate legislation will include cap and trade.
There’s a problem, though. Cap and trade requires that major polluters such as electric utilities and big industries measure and report their emissions. That’s where things get messy. In huge multinational corporations or in massive utilities, it’s tough to figure out what you’re emitting.
For example: I work for a ski resort, a miniscule business relative to what we’ll be regulating under cap and trade. We made a good-faith effort to track our emissions, tallying utility bills and diesel usage, gasoline purchases and propane consumption. Three years into our audited cap-and-trade commitment through the Chicago Climate Exchange—an early, voluntary effort at cap and trade—we discovered we hadn’t been counting fuel from part of the company.
As Homer Simpson would say: “Doh!” If we failed to accurately track our emissions—doing it voluntarily and in good faith and with a third-party auditor—what will happen when a multinational corporation tries to Enron or Madoff the system? This doesn’t even address the fact that cap and trade creates a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy to measure, audit and regulate the beast. A carbon tax avoids all this messiness.
The European Union early on demonstrated the problems with cap and trade. They grossly overestimated existing emissions, issued too many permits and caused the price of carbon—the cost of emitting a ton of carbon dioxide—to crash. Carbon trading often resembled, to use a tired analogy, the Wild West.
That’s why we need to cowboy up and stop whining that carbon taxation is politically impossible. Taxes bring us some of the best things our society has to offer—schools and bridges, scholarships and clean water.
Moreover, American political opinion about climate change might be changing. Without CIA assistance, the public is literally being tortured into confessing that we need real, workable solutions to climate change. Increasing floods, storms, wildfires, beetle infestations and droughts—all predicted by climate models—are taking us to the breaking point. If our politicians are finally tough enough to withstand these calamities and then rebuild cities like New Orleans, surely they’re tough enough to utter the words “carbon tax.”
Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He directs sustainability programs for the Aspen Skiing Co. and is the author of the new book, Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.