Columnist Robert Samuelson: Time to Think Carbon Tax?

A respected long-term economics columnist comes around to backing a carbon tax, if only because it might address problems going beyond just those associated with a warming world.

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Robert J. Samuelson: Warming up to idea of carbon tax?

Few loyal readers — and there are many — are likely to consider prominent Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson a “green” determined to get to the bottom of the climate change conundrum. His columns — he’s been at it with the Post since 1977 — have left little doubt that his heart and his financial calculator lie elsewhere.

Which makes his November 18, 2013, column in The Washington Post all the more notable.

It’s not likely, mind you, to win Samuelson any “green awards” from climate activists, but his words that “For years I’ve advocated an energy tax — my preference now is a carbon tax” nonetheless are striking, even in the full context of much else he writes in that column that is more vintage Samuelson.

He points to what he calls “gaping uncertainties,” “assumptions,” and “more assumptions” in lauding work by MIT economist Robert Pindyck in his review of climate models of effects and costs of climate change. To Samuelson, Pindyck is “a global warming pragmatist and not a “denier.” He points to Pindyck’s view that climate change and adverse economic impacts “could be wildly overstated…could be wildly understated…might ultimately be catastrophic.”

“We simply don’t know. Ignorance reigns,” he writes in praising Pindyck’s — and now his own — support for a “modest carbon tax.”

“There are certainly some ill effects of global warming,” Samuelson writes, saying more knowledge over time could lead to further adjustments in the tax rate.

Announcing what he now calls his own “standard,” Samuelson wrote, “Support policies that, though they might address climate change, can be justified on other grounds. It’s a partial solution, because there is no complete solution.”

Noting what he calls the “paralysis” surrounding potential climate policies, Samuelson pointed to the challenges of reaching “collective agreement” among diverse countries around the world; the political challenge of governments’ making today’s citizens feel pain for “hypothetical gains (less global warming) for tomorrow’s citizens; and what he sees as environmentalists’ overstatements and “dire terms”: “If failure is fated, why bother?”

His approach: put a price on carbon through a tax on oil, coal, and natural gas based on the costs of global warming. How much is that? “We don’t know global warming’s full effects.” But a carbon tax might help in funding movement toward a simpler income tax, and in addressing multiple problems “an admittedly unpopular carbon tax might command broader support.”

“Who knows?” Samuelson concluded. “It might even pass.”

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3 Responses to Columnist Robert Samuelson: Time to Think Carbon Tax?

  1. Jan Freed says:

    A very thorough discussion of “carbon fee and dividend” is at

    http://citizensclimatelobby.org/carbon-fee-and-dividend-faq/

    Basically, all carbon (at well head or mine) is assigned a fee, perhaps $25/ton.

    All proceeds are returned to citizens. The free market then gives low carbon solutions a strong boost, and citizens are reimbursed for any price spikes on gas, for example.

    About 9 countries have a carbon tax. For example, BC has lowered emissions by almost 20% and is growing economically faster than most provinces.

  2. John Pozzi says:

    Dear Robert, Why not an ecosystem impact charge? John – http://www.grb.net

  3. Rich Wright says:

    A carbon tax was the major issue dividing the political parties in the most recent election in Australia. The party that had installed a carbon tax was decisively voted out of office due primarily to opposition to the carbon tax, and the incoming party has made the repeal of the carbon tax its most urgent priority.

    Given that the carbon tax has failed its first test with voters in a democratic nation, it is unlikely that other political parties in other nations will be eager to enact a carbon tax.