Pricing carbon

The weekend before Thanksgiving break, 19 of your Williams peers piled into cars and drove down to Wesleyan for a Pricing Carbon conference. Over 100 of your collegiate peers from Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) attended, as well as several hundred adults from all different spheres of the environmental world. There were congressmen, lobbyists, climatologists and more. The keynote speakers were Bill McKibben, a leading climate activist, and Dr. James Hansen, the first climatologist to testify in court telling Congress that climate change was happening in the 1980s. It was an intense three days of presentations, panel discussions and smaller break-out meetings. The students from SJSF had their own agenda: to write a declaration of their goals as a group, as well as to be part of the larger Pricing Carbon meeting.

At this point I bet some of you are wondering just what “Pricing Carbon” means. In short, our world cannot support the extreme consumption of resources that our energy-intense lifestyles require. It is not enough for individuals to make their own small changes or for green technologies to be the substitute. It comes down to people using less energy, plain and simple. How exactly are people going to have the incentive to do this? We live in a capitalist society, and the only way that people are actually going to use less is if it is economically desirable. The economic pressure needs to be widespread and mandated by one source: the government. A carbon tax, a way to actually put a price on carbon dioxide, would do just that.

Here at Williams everyone knows that climate change is happening, but I do not think that people are aware of how fast it is happening. We have already seen what one degree Celsius of warming will do to the planet. This past summer was the hottest on record, and it is not going to stop there. The most morally problematic issue with climate change is that it affects the poorest people who contribute the least to the increase in carbon dioxide levels. McKibben’s most striking point was that you cannot point to a place on the globe and tell someone living there that they will be a refugee of war in 40 years, but you can point to a place on the globe and guarantee to a person living there that they will be a refugee of climate change in 20 years. It is morally unthinkable to sit around and wait for that to happen without doing everything in our power to slow down the process.

What, might you ask, can a student at Williams do to create the change radical enough to make this possible? You can write to your state representative urging them to propose and support a carbon tax. Although there are many variations on what the actual tax would look like, all are designed to justly account for the negative externalities that commodities with large carbon emissions have. The version of the tax easiest to implement would have high taxes on carbon-heavy products. At the end of every month a direct deposit of all the money from the tax would be returned back to the people: the same amount for everyone, regardless of income. This way if you own three cars and multiple homes you end up paying, but if you find ways to reduce your carbon emissions such as biking to work, or moving closer to your work, you will actually earn money back. Instead of incentive programs that encourage people what they ought to do, it clearly shows people what not to do, which is live carbon-heavy lifestyles. The government will not have to choose which green technology to support, wind or solar; rather individuals will drive the market and the companies that make the most truly carbon friendly products will come out on top. The batteries that go into making electric cars, for example, will be taxed accordingly and result in the consumer knowing upfront what a ludicrous contraption they actually are. The transparency of the real impact of products on the environment will be visible.

When it comes to climate change there is no easy solution. The word “tax” seems like political suicide after the Republican Tea Party, and it probably is, but it is the only way to get people to use less energy. As Charles Komanoff, an energy-policy analyst, said so eloquently in his panel discussion, “There is no magic number, there is only a magic direction, and that direction is down.” Even with finals looming ahead, climate change still applies to us. At times I feel people at Williams are too politically correct and afraid of saying something offensive, so they don’t say anything at all. Everyone who has a vote has a voice and an opinion equally needed to help slow climate change. Be bold: If you want to get attention through civil disobedience check out; if you want to lobby go to; if you think it’s corporations at fault boycott their products and protest at their doors. Just do something.

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