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MILLOY: Carbon taxes won’t save the planet

Global warming is excuse for economy grab

- - Friday, November 16, 2012

Global-warming alarmists are hoping Hurricane Sandy and President Obama's re-election will force panicky congressional Republicans into agreeing to a "carbon tax" in 2013. If you can do simple math, you can figure out that a carbon tax would have no effect other than an inflationary one.

A carbon tax would operate as a new sales tax on goods and services that are produced through or otherwise involve the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and petroleum products. You might pay the tax in your electric bill, at the gas pump or in the form of higher prices for other goods and services.

The purpose of a carbon tax would be to penalize the use of fossil fuels in hopes of reducing their use and lowering emissions of carbon dioxide, which has been hypothesized by alarmists to have caused global cooling in the 1970s, global warming in the 1980s and 1990s, climate change in the 2000s and extreme weather in the 2010s.

While higher prices for goods and services aren't inherently evil, their merits must be judged by what consumers and even society get in return. So let's consider what we might get, climatically speaking, from a carbon tax.

To give a carbon tax the maximum advantage in our analysis, we'll assume it is extremely successful in reducing U.S. carbon emissions to the point where the United States no longer emits into the atmosphere any carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels. Let's also imagine that this public-policy wonder has this maximum and magical effect starting as soon as Jan. 1, 2013.

What would be the climatic effect of immediately shutting down the fossil-fuel-based U.S. economy?

Let's say that U.S. fossil fuel use results in 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere annually. Let's further assume, conservatively, that of this 6 billion tons, about 40 percent (2.4 billion tons) stays and accumulates in the atmosphere annually.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is commonly measured in parts per million, and the weight of carbon dioxide at a concentration of 1 part per million is approximately 7.81 billion metric tons. Simple division, then, shows that the U.S. fossil-fuel-based economy might be adding at most approximately 0.31 parts per million to the atmosphere every year.

If the carbon tax could magically stop U.S. emissions entirely as of 2013, by the year 2100, we would have avoided adding about 27 parts per million (0.31 times 87) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

That may sound like a lot, but consider that the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 391 parts per million. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels in 2100 could range from 450 parts per million, with an absolute global clampdown on greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury, to 950-plus parts per million with no clampdown.

Either way, it's easy to see that a savings of 27 parts per million over 87 years is trivial, particularly in comparison to the cost of shutting down the entire economy, and would make no meaningful difference even if atmospheric carbon dioxide were the driver of global climate that the alarmists claim it is.

For further perspective on the significance of a carbon-dioxide concentration of 27 parts per million, consider that the point at which the atmosphere contained 27 parts per million less than it does now was 1997. Since then, there has been no significant global warming, even according to the alarmists.

Let's get back to reality, though. Remember we have been fantasizing wildly about the effect of a carbon tax. No carbon tax enacted into law -- even by an Obama-fearing 113th Congress -- would come anywhere close to significantly reducing, much less stopping, fossil-fuel use in the United States.

In reality, goods and services simply would be made to cost more, but the atmosphere -- and hence, the climate -- would not be affected in any significant way. Consumer dollars would have less purchasing power. This phenomenon is called inflation.

Sadly, there are conservative economists who say they could support a carbon tax under the right conditions.

Reagan economist Arthur Laffer would support a carbon tax in exchange for a reduction in payroll or income taxes. Bush 43 economist Greg Mankiw supports a global carbon tax. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, senior adviser to John McCain in 2008, wants a carbon tax to provide the energy industry with regulatory "certainty."

As smart as these guys may be, apparently none of them has done the simple math that shows a carbon tax would be a futile policy that would buy less than nothing.

Hurricane Sandy showed what life is like without fossil fuels. It's not an existence many would relish. Mr. Obama's concern is not the realities of climate. For him and his kind, global warming is just an excuse to seize control of the economy. As for congressional Republicans, they don't need to panic -- they should just do the math.

Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is the author of "Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them" (Regnery, 2009).