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Moral Pricing of Carbon

While a carbon tax or other form of carbon pricing is stuck in our gridlocked political system, a psychic or moral price that will limit carbon usage can be established without need for congressional action.

The principal constraint on most consumers’ carbon usage now is their ability to afford fuel, and given that the price of energy is relatively low (driving a car costs less than $.20 a mile), energy cost is for most people a relatively weak inducement to substantially reduce their carbon usage relative to the convenience of car travel.

Aside from a general knowledge that burning of oil, gas, coal, and other fossil fuels contributes to global warming, few of us consider the impact that our personal CO2 emissions have on the environment. No one asks us to limit our carbon usage in any significant way, other than to voluntarily implement painless “tips” such as fully inflating our tires and installing insulation to save on heating bills. The vast majority of us release many tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, heedless of the impact we cause.

For persons with the means to do so, choosing between the purchase of an ultra-fuel efficient electrified car or a standard gasoline-powered car is still considered a value-free lifestyle choice, not an indicator of the quality of one’s citizenship. Likewise, installing solar panels on one’s roof is not a responsibility, but rather a lifestyle choice. Few of us would dare to criticize the carbon usage of another person (provided that they didn’t have an ostentatious SUV), even if that person emitted twenty times more CO2 than the norm.

Carbon usage should be considered a moral choice, not an unimportant byproduct of a lifestyle choice, because its use negatively impacts others. The science is clear that rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations portend flooding of low-lying regions, intense storms and heat, drought, ocean acidification, and famine. Given that the ability of the Earth’s atmosphere to absorb additional CO2 without drastically affecting climate is stretched to the breaking point, every pound of CO2 that we emit negatively impacts every present and future inhabitant of this planet. An action which harms others necessarily has moral significance.

Establishing a moral price of carbon usage requires consumers to understand the specific impact of their actions. Consumers need to be informed, when they go to fill their tank, that each gallon of gas in their tank will release 20 pounds of carbon when burned. Their electric bill should state, not only the kilowatts they used in the past month, but also the pounds of carbon used to generate those kilowatts. Once they become familiar with these numbers, the moral dimensions of their carbon usage will become more visible and harder to ignore.

How will consumers respond to being continuously exposed to information regarding the impacts of burning carbon? The tobacco example is instructive. The publicizing of the health impacts of second-hand tobacco smoke in the 1980s generated an enormous change in the perception of tobacco, and led to a new and more effective era of regulation and control of cigarettes. One writer, Allan Brandt, described the changes in perceptions of tobacco caused by the discovery of the risks of second-hand smoke as follows:

“In the last half-century, the cigarette has been transformed. The fragrant has become foul; an emblem of attraction has become repulsive; a mark of sociability has become deviant; a public behavior now is virtually private. The recognition of the risks of passive smoke serves to explain this radical change. Not only has the meaning of the cigarette been transformed, but even more, the meaning of the smoker.”

The principal source of the radical change in perception of the cigarette was not government action, but individuals’ concern about their own health and those of innocents, and their resentment of those who put others’ health in jeopardy. These decisive changes in perception were made in the face of fierce opposition from a powerful industry, long-running efforts to cloud the science of smoking risks, and effective gridlock in Congress preventing major legislation in the area.

A similar transformation is possible with carbon usage, if the health, safety, financial and other risks and costs of individuals’ burning of carbon become clear, and if society condemns excessive carbon use as a risk that is being improperly imposed upon others.

Of course, there are significant differences between the second-hand impacts of cigarette smoking and CO2 emissions. The impact of cigarette smoke is directly experienced by its victim, while carbon emissions contribute to a global problem that is experienced collectively by all human being. All of us are net CO2 emitters, whereas smokers are a discrete and readily identifiable subgroup of our population.

Nonetheless, the tobacco example should encourage us as an example of a radical reduction of use of product that causes social harm prompted by moral opprobrium and resentment of risk that its users placed on others.

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