Candidates deserve credit for carbon proposals

Written by adam


Thomas Friedman is one of the most important national writers on green issues – maybe the most important. Which is why this quote from a recent column is so confusing:

[N]one of the leading presidential candidates has offered an energy policy that would include a tax on oil or carbon that could trigger a truly transformational shift in America away from fossil fuels.

The column is framed as a mock assessment of America’s security program from the point of view of an Iranian intelligence agency. It’s a clever enough conceit, and in the middle of it Friedman drops in the line about carbon taxes to underscore the point that America isn’t serious about energy independence.

It’s a shame that Friedman focuses only on the lack of proposals for carbon tax, and doesn’t mention candidate proposals for cap and trade. Of the three leading Democratic candidates, 100% have offered strong plans for taxing carbon emissions in the form of cap-and-trade programs. On the Republican side, it’s a bit hard to figure out who’s leading these days, but two candidates (McCain and Huckabee) have at least endorsed the idea of a cap-and-trade system. This is pretty thin gruel, but it’s not nothing. McCain has actually pushed for passage of such legislation in the Senate.

There are surely differences between a straight carbon tax and a cap and trade system, but the distinctions aren’t really strong enough to support the column’s contention. And it’s true that the line is just a small piece of an article that covers a lot of ground, but I think this sort of thing matters.

Here’s why. It’s good to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, particularly during a campaign season. But there’s a flip side to this: when politicians actually take bold positions, it would be nice to see them rewarded for their courage. Otherwise, why should they stick their necks out? Several leading candidates have great — even transformational — energy plans. They should reap the political benefits.

Which raises a secondary, related problem with the column: the careful evenhandedness. A lot of candidates don’t have great, transformational energy plans. And that so-called “green gap” is a perfect place for a columnist with Friedman’s megaphone to focus his attention.

You May Also Like…


  1. Greg Grothaus

    I am guessing here. I think Friedman’s is making a distinction between cap-and-trade and carbon tax. From an economics perspective, they should achieve the same result as long as the tax per pound of carbon equals the market price per pound of carbon, and so you are mostly right.
    The difference is that most cap-and-trade programs in the US are likely to have small text that gives away all of the credits to existing polluters. That will prevent smaller players (like terrapass or others) who aren’t granted free credits (economically equivalent to cash) from competing and providing innovative alternatives to burning oil.
    Or maybe Friedman did just miss the point.

  2. Adam Stein

    It’s a reasonable theory (although I have a slightly different one).
    But there is a problem with your point about the small text. None of the Democrats’ plans include that small text. All of them are for 100% auctioned permits.