The political atmosphere surrounding climate change is often excruciating to bear; scientists keep offering dire warnings but politicians can’t seem to agree on what to do, if anything. Governments can try tactics like capping total emissions, investing in alternative fuels, or mandating specific fuel efficiencies. But none of these has seemed to work thus far. Economic theory suggests we can shift the behaviors of consumers and firms to account for the negative effects of carbon by making its use more expensive. Would this “carbon tax” be any more politically feasible than the other alternatives? Will it be too much of a burden? Can we trust the government to implement it? Find out the dirt on carbon taxes and how it stacks up against other efforts to battle climate change.

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The Copenhagen Consensus, headed by Bjorn Lomborg and featuring several nobel prize winners, has evaluated the effectiveness of various climate change-fighting measures in comparison to their costs. They ranked their findings in the following table:

copenhagenchart

I’m sure the report has gotten some valid criticisms, so I’m not taking their findings as indisputable facts or anything. But the low score for carbon taxes surprises me most. The “adaptation” idea also intrigues me.

Elizabeth Kolbert chronicles some absurd enviro-stunt books in the most recent New Yorker.  One highlight is from a book by Colin Beavan called No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process:

For a year, [Colin Beavan] and his family would attempt to live, in his words, “as environmentally as possible”…. They would try to live in a ninth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village without producing any environmental impact whatsoever…. [Beavan] insists that the family give up toilet paper and keeps hassling his wife to forswear tampons. He decides that they can eat only seasonal food grown in the Northeast, which eliminates coffee. Michelle, a devotee of Starbucks quadruple shots, develops a debilitating caffeine-withdrawal headache. Beavan spends a lot of time worrying about the family’s—i.e., Michelle’s—lapses. When he finds a Sunday Times lying on the table, he accuses her of betrayal. “Are you taking this project seriously?” he demands. “Are you buying newspapers when I’m not around?”

A huge problem with doomsday progressive environmentalism is that, taken to its logical extreme, it demands an all-consuming devotion to minimizing one’s environmental impact.  As Beavin’s book seems to vividly illustrate, actually following through on this conviction turns people into huge douchebags.

So what if you are somebody (like me) who worries about possible catastrophic consequences of global warming and wants to contribute to keeping the planet healthy and habitable?  It’s frustrating, because it’s really hard to know what to do.  You don’t want to turn into a Beavin, who eschews all other pursuits in life for the sake of minimizing environmental impact.  But it takes a lot of time and energy to figure out what your most environmental damaging activities are and what you should do to reduce your carbon footprint.

A lot of people try to be more environmental by buying local food, but there’s evidence indicating that, despite its appealing simplicity, being a locavore isn’t particularly sensible if you’re trying to reduce your environmental impact.  Same with recycling, or eating organic:  a lot of popular environmentally friendly activities don’t actually do a lot for the environment, and a lot of activities (like not eating red meat) that aren’t widely know as environmentally friendly actually do make meaningful reductions in individuals’ environmental impacts.

The problem is, because so much information is necessary, it’s hard to make environmentally responsible decisions, which is a huge impediment to more people making them (since fortunately, most people don’t want to be like Beavan).  If only there was a way to compile and synthesize all this information, and convert it into one, easy-to-understand number that would inform you of the overall costs of your purchasing decisions.  Fortunately, there is: prices!  This is why it’s so important to have a carbon tax, and why progressives who care about the environment should be much more passionate in their support for one.  If carbon were priced, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not eating local, or organic, or recycling, or taking the bus instead of the metro instead of driving actually reduces carbon output.  Prices would make all those decisions for me, and I could go about my day with one less thing to worry about.