Following news coverage can be easy. Understanding some of the terms it uses, less so. In our Flashcard series, The Atlantic explains ideas you may read about but never see spelled out. In this installment, we dig into the case for carbon pricing.
President Obama's first Oval Office address on the Gulf oil spill was panned in the press for (among other things) his failure to demand a price for carbon emissions. Senators Joe Lieberman and John Kerry have presented a bill with a carbon price under cap-and-trade, but other Democrats are leaving environmentalists in dismay by pushing energy plans that would skirt the issue entirely. What is a carbon price and why is it so important to the global warming debate?
Modern, thriving economies produce a lot of dirty energy. At the current rate, global carbon dioxide emissions will triple by the year 2100. Many scientists project a five-to-six degree increase in temperatures over the next century, which would trigger unknowable shifts in sea levels, air quality and natural resources. If we want to slow global warming, we have to slow carbon emissions.
When something is free, you tend to use more of it. It's true for buffets and open bars, and it's the same with carbon. Today producers and consumers can burn coal and drive gas-guzzlers without fully paying for their contribution to rising carbon dioxide levels. Carbon emissions have a cost, but carbon emitters don't pay the price. Economists call this a "market failure." You can call it, "a recipe for toasting the planet."