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The Most Important Number on Earth


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:53 pm

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In energy terms, that would look like this:
[ 1 ] No more new coal plants, because although the world still has immense amounts of coal, it’s immensely dirty. And the people who tell you about clean coal are blowing smoke—literally.
[ 2 ] A cap on the amount of carbon the US can produce—which, in essence, is a tax. America would say, just as it does now with sulfur from coal plants, “We’re only going to release so much carbon every year.” CO2 would stop being free; in fact, it would become expensive. In order to simplify the process, the upstream producer who mines, imports, or sells the fossil fuel would get the tab. ExxonMobil would have to pay dearly for a permit to release x amount of carbon, a cost it would pass on to consumers. Then those consumers would use less, and markets would go to work figuring out all the possible ways to cut demand and boost renewables.
[ 3 ] An international agreement, including China and India, to do the same thing around the world.

A Marshall Plan for Carbon
Now, these are three of the hardest tasks we’ve even thought about since we took on Hitler. They go to the very heart of the way our economy operates: We get most of our electricity from fossil fuels, any increase in the price of energy affects every single part of the economy, and China and India are pulling people out of poverty largely by burning cheap coal. If you’re a person who uses a lot of fossil fuel, i.e. an American, then they’re unappealing. If you’re a person who would like to use even a little energy, i.e. almost anyone in the developing world, then they’re maddening. And yet they are what the physics and chemistry of the situation dictate. So the question becomes, how to make them happen?

The logic imposed by 350 is fairly straightforward. In order to keep Americans from rebelling, we need to take the money we’re charging ExxonMobil for those pollution permits and return it to the taxpayers—everyone needs to get a check every month to, in essence, buy us all off. To help make us whole for the price rises that will inevitably come, the price rises that will do the work of wringing fossil fuel out of the economy. ExxonMobil would pay, then we’d pay—but we’d get some of the money back in the mail. We’ve got to make the switch so fast that it’s going to be brutally expensive—think $10 gas—and our democracy will never support it for long without that monthly check.

But we can’t give ourselves back all the money. Because some of it is needed to make the rest of the world whole—to build windmills for the Indians so they won’t use the same cheap coal that we used for 200 years in order to get rich. That is, we’re going to need a Marshall Plan for carbon—with the same mix of idealism and self-interest that motivated the Marshall Plan in Hitler’s wake.

We also need serious investment in infrastructure, both technological and human. For instance, concepts like concentrated solar power—those big mirror arrays in the desert—have gained real momentum in the last 18 months. Former Clinton administration energy analyst Joseph Romm recently calculated that such arrays could provide America with all of its electricity from a 92-square-mile grid in the Southwest desert—but only if promoted via loan guarantees for the entrepreneurs who build them and a new generation of transcontinental transmission lines. Meanwhile, demand is skyrocketing for small rooftop solar panels, but increasingly there’s a shortage of trained installers, which means our community colleges need money to start training them. No matter what the price of energy, homes aren’t going to insulate themselves—this is the great opening for a green-jobs revolution.

You’ll note here I’m talking more about what we should do in the US House (and Senate) in the next year or two than which bulbs you should be changing in your house. DIY conservation makes great practical sense, but we won’t save the planet that way. One by one, trying to do the right thing, we add up to...not nearly enough. You cannot make the math work that way—there are too many sockets and too many tailpipes and most of all too much inertia for voluntary action to do the trick. It didn’t work when President Bush made voluntary reduction by corporations his global warming “policy,” and it won’t work fast enough with individuals either.
Which is not to say that life at home doesn’t need to change. It does—and it will, once we’ve taken the political step of making the price of carbon reflect the damage it does to the environment. Look at what happened this past year when the price of gas finally rose far enough to get our attention. We began riding trains and buses in record numbers. Total miles driven fell, sharply, for the first time since we started keeping records in 1942. We groused and moaned and we started to change. General Motors decided to sell its Hummer factory.

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