Will Carbon Pricing Ever Make A Comeback?

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 18 2012 1:32 PM

Will Carbon Pricing Ever Make A Comeback?

Environmentalists got their wish today, with a nice assist from House Republicans, as the Obama administration now plans to kill the Keystone XL pipeline project. Initially, Obama seemed like he was going to approve the project but then under intense activist pressure began wavering. At that point, House Republicans decided they smelled a campaign issue and started pressing to demand an expedited review process as part of the payroll tax compromise late last year. The executive branch warned that expedited review would result in rejecting the project, but conservatives pressed ahead anyway apparently eager to see Obama nix approval so they could complain about it. The rider was left in the bill, the project was killed, conservatives are complaining, and environmentalists are popping the champagne—they turned this into a big deal high-profile fight, and then they won.

What I wonder is whether there's any path from where we are now back to the idea of a comprehensive climate change bill. If there is, it seems to me that it would have to be through the rather different route of tax and budget policy. I am not a deficit hawk and I don't believe that reducing the projected long-term deficit is important. But at some future date deficit reduction will be important, and it's clear that the only way to avoid draconian cuts in popular programs will be through higher revenue. Right now, Democrats are relentlessly focused on the idea that "higher revenue" must mean "higher revenue from rich people" but taxing greenhouse gas emissions would also raise revenues (obviously) and might be more palatable to some segments of the conservative movement. This isn't an either/or choice, of course, but the total absence of environmental taxes from the tax/budget debate strikes me as both unfortunate and a little bit odd. The people pushing for a comprehensive climate bill in 2009-2010 were ultimately symied by the filibuster and now only represent a minority in both chambers, but it's still a non-trivial number of members of Congress and I'd love to see someone making some noise about this. It's perverse for DC to be perennially abuzz with deficit plans and tax controversies even as nobody's talking about a deficit-reducing way to solve our biggest environmental problem.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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