A Price on Carbon

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

THE WORLD'S understandable skepticism of the United States' seriousness in dealing with climate change will be on full display this week during summits in New York and Washington. After all, President Bush has temporized and dithered while Congress has refused to act. Even House and Senate energy bills, which in any case only nibble at the edges of the problem, are stuck in legislative limbo.

Yet there is movement on Capitol Hill to slow the aggressive advance of global warming by putting a price on carbon. A carbon tax would be the simplest and most efficient way to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and that sadly is unlikely to get far. But an encouraging bipartisan consensus may be building in Washington around the second-best option, a cap-and-trade system in which government would set a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide that could be emitted and would issue allowances to emitting companies that could buy and sell those rights.

There are at least five proposals in the Senate, including one from John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) is working hard on a bill in the House along with former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). So far, Mr. Bush has opposed any mandatory -- that is to say, meaningful -- limits. But much of industry has realized that limits are inevitable, and some executives may calculate that they would be better served to enact legislation now -- with a Republican president, while Mr. Warner and Mr. Hastert are still in office -- than to take their chances after 2008. They in turn might encourage the administration to understand that a sensible, bipartisan cap-and-trade bill could enhance the thin Bush legacy. Mr. Boucher told us last week that the White House has been "favorably disposed to working with us as revealed by a series of constructive conversations" with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., national economic adviser Al Hubbard and Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James L. Connaughton.

The effects of the buildup of greenhouse gases are staring everyone in the face. Scientists are predicting the Arctic ice cap will shrink 40 percent by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in February that if greenhouse gases weren't reined in, Arctic sea ice would "almost entirely" disappear by the end of the century, spelling doom for polar bears and other animals that depend on the ice for survival. More ominous news came last week when the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the Arctic Ocean ice cap shrank so much more than average this summer that it lost territory roughly the size of Alaska and Texas combined. To continue to do nothing in the face of this grim reality is not acceptable.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company