By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Climate activist James Hansen is urging the public and Congress to reject the “smoke and mirrors” of energy bills now pending in Congress and embrace a “simple, honest” carbon fee instead.

Fees collected from fossil fuel-burning industries would help pay for their polluting emissions and could be redistributed to the public to help cover the cost of shifting from dirty to clean energy generation, Dr. Hansen told the crowd at Washington’s Earth Day Climate Rally on Sunday.

Such a plan would not only level the playing field for emerging clean energy projects by forcing carbon-emitters to pay for their pollution, said Dr. Hansen, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. It also could help build public support for climate action because the carbon fees could be redistributed to the public.

Dr. Hansen’s proposal is supported by the Carbon Tax Center, which advocates a simple carbon fee plan to help end greenhouse gas emissions. The Carbon Tax Center highlighted Hansen’s remarks in a news release today.

Dr. Hansen is among a growing list of scientists, economists and advocates that support a carbon tax, or carbon “fee-and-dividend” program that puts a price tag on carbon-pollution and returns the money to the taxpayers.

Advocates of the carbon tax say it is straightforward and would move the economy quickly toward a clean energy future. By contrast, they say, a cap-and-trade plan such as the one pending in the Senate, could be manipulated by Wall Street traders and would allow polluters to find loopholes in the elaborate system.

Along with Dr. Hansen, known for sounding the alarm about climate change to Congress 20 years ago, others who support a carbon fee according to the Carbon Tax Center include: former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Columbia University Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs, and many others in academia.

The website also lists several public officials who endorse a carbon fee plan, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and conservative U.S. House Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC), who is quoted as saying that a “tax swap” in which carbon fees were returned to families could make conservatives “the new administration’s best allies on climate change.”

“We need to impose a tax on the thing we want less of (carbon dioxide) and reduce taxes on the things we want more of (income and jobs),” Inglis once wrote in a New York Times Op Ed co-authored with Arthur Laffer. “A carbon tax would attach the national security and environmental costs to carbon-based fuels like oil, causing the market to recognize the price of these negative externalities.”

All of which raises the question, if a carbon fee plan can appeal to conservatives, why is Congress pushing the cap-and-trade bill?

Steve Valk, communications director for the Citizens Climate Lobby, thinks it’s partly because too many in Congress are listening to fossil fuel industry leaders instead of scientists like Dr. Hansen.

“How are you going to pass something effective, if the people who stand to profit are the ones you’re listening to?”

Valk, whose group trains volunteers to speak to elected leaders about sustainability, thinks Congressional leaders who’ve worked on the cap-and-trade bill should be lauded for their efforts to address carbon pollution.

But “ultimately,we’re talking about a fatally flawed proposal and if it’s passed, people will think it’s done something when in fact we haven’t done enough to avoid the tipping points that are right around the corner here.”

Cap-and-trade, with its elaborate auctioning system has built-in market volatility, he said, which leave clean energy projects without a clear way to project the future — a key issue thwarting their development today.

The cap-and-trade plan also allows companies to buy offsets against their pollution, which some studies have shown vary in quality, and sometimes don’t even represent new climate mitigation efforts.

A carbon “fee and dividend” plan, Valk  says, presents clear benefits over cap-and-trade, by providing a more reliable path ahead. That stability would encourage utilities and energy companies to make the needed investments in non-polluting alternative energy like wind and solar farms.

If Hansen’s idea of setting up an escalating, staged-in price schedule for carbon emissions were put into place, Valk said, it would also give citizens a big cushion against any rising electricity costs.

He offered this example: If the price for carbon were set at about $115 per ton by 2020, it could return $1,500 to every American citizen (assuming the country had reduced its emissions to around 4 billion tons of carbon by then and the population remained steady.)

The Citizens Climate Lobby is trying to get that message out,  that clean air could come with a $1,500 rebate.

“Any politician who can’t sell that,” Valk says, “needs to find another line of work.”

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