less carbon = jobs + lower taxes

Wall Street Bull Behind Bars

Wall Street likes it simple: promote bull markets; avoid bear markets. But there’s now an elephant on Wall Street, and few are daring to talk about it.

In you hadn’t noticed, the market has been essentially flat for a year; that is until it cratered last week, losing 18 months worth of gains. Unlike the crash of 2008, there’s no obvious smoking gun.

I’m no economist, but I’ve been reading the economic tea leaves for quite some time.
On July 13, 2015, Paul Gilding published a riveting article in Australia’s REnewEconomy titled “Fossil Fuels Are Finished — The Rest Is Just Detail.” We’re witnessing, I’m fairly certain, market chaos associated with the end of the era of fossil fuels.

Modern industrialized civilization exists because of a Faustian bargain with fossil energy: first coal, then oil, and now gas. We’ve mortgaged our future to pay for an over-consumptive present. That “bargain” is now liquidating the life-support systems of planet earth. Our mortgage has come due in full.

Gilding believes that 2015 will be viewed as the year the “dam of denial” broke. So do I. Fossil fuels are on their last legs. Here are the indicators:

  • The days of cheap fossil energy are over, as measured by the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) index. In oil’s glory days, drillers reaped 100 barrels in return for each barrel invested in extraction. In striking contrast, bitumen tar sands have an EROEI index of just 3:1.
  • Denial of looming climate catastrophe is no longer a sane option. When the pope writes an encylical to address climate change and fossil fuel’s role in it, the jig is up for deniers.
  • Climate scientists have determined, as reported in Nature, that 80% of known fossil-fuel reserves must remain in the ground (as “stranded assets”) for any hope of stabilizing the climate at 2C of warming.
  • The fossil-fuel divestment movement, which started just three years ago, is taking off. Fossils are no longer wise, nor morally acceptable, investments.
  • But most strikingly, the economic tables have turned. While fossil energy has become ever more expensive, renewable energy has become progressively cheaper. These trend curves have recently crossed. Wind generated electricity is now cheaper per kilowatt-hour than that from coal, oil, gas, or nuclear power plants.
  • Gasoline is cheap now only because Saudi Arabia is refusing to follow its own standard operating procedure, i.e., of dropping production during a glut to keep prices inflated. Why? The Saudis see the writing on the wall. They don’t want to be sitting on stranded fossil reserves.
  • Solar costs too are plummeting, and solar energy will soon overtake wind in cost-effectiveness. For this reason, on August 21, SunEdison Inc., announced that it would begin construction of a huge 156-megawatt solar farm that “comes out ahead in direct competition with natural gas,” without any “fuel-price [fluctuation] risk.”

Given these economic tea leaves, the choice is clear: continue with fossil-fueled business as usual and its associated market and climate chaos, or foster, on a worldwide scale, a rapid and orderly transition from fossils to renewables. The most promising vehicle for the latter is carbon fee-and-dividend as advocated by the Citizens Climate Lobby.

Carbon fees are market corrections that build into the price of fossil fuels their “externalities,” the costs born by society that the market has long ignored: increased health costs due to air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and climate disruption, etc. The fees are imposed, per ton of carbon, at the source: the wellhead, the coal mine, or the tar sands pit. Economists tend to favor the fee-and-dividend approach over cap-and-trade: it’s simple, fair, and not easily gamed by industry.

Most fee-and-dividend scenarios are “revenue-neutral.” To offset “pain at the pump,” they equitably and fully refund to the public all fees collected. Hence, they are not taxes in the sense that the fees do not swell government coffers.

Because fee-and-dividend scenarios are market based, they enjoy wide-spectrum support, including from well-known fiscal conservatives.

Most germane to this discussion: the fees are gradually ramped up over time, ultimately pricing fossil fuels at or near their true cost to society. The implementation schedule is well publicized in advance, thereby sending clear signals to Wall Street and global financial markets.

Revenue-neutral carbon fee-and-dividend programs are proven economic tools. In an 2013 essay, the World Bank called British Columbia’s carbon fee program “a real environmental and economic success after six years [of implementation].” The program has not only reduced carbon consumption dramatically, it has done so while spurring job growth and lowering individual and corporate taxes.

It’s high time to recognize the elephant on Wall Street and to tame it before it goes rogue. It’s high time for a bipartisan national fee-and-dividend program.

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(The author is grateful to Doug Hendren for editorial suggestions.)

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This story also appeared at The Huffington Post. Image credits: “Citizens United Money Globe,” “2016 Republican Clown Car Parade” and “Koch Brothers Campaign Circus” by DonkeyHotey via his flickr photo stream and used under a Creative Commons license.
513f6saxU8L._SL160_ The author's book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning. According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."
Dave Pruett

Dave Pruett

Dave Pruett, a former NASA researcher, is an award-winning computational scientist and emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, VA. His alter ego, however, now out of the closet, is a writer. His first book, Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012), a "love letter to the cosmos," grew out of an acclaimed honors course at JMU that opens up "a vast world of mystery and discovery," to quote one enthralled student. For more information, visit reasonandwonder.org

2 Comments
  1. I agree we are seeing the death-throes of so-called “fossil” fuels. The purveyors are still casting about for alternative uses, but the end can’t come soon enough. Pumping carbon from the earth’s crust into the atmosphere we breathe was always a bad idea. Making the particles “fine” enough so they can’t be seen doesn’t change their effect on organisms with lungs. Indeed, the fine particulate matter seems to be worse than the soot we used to sweep off our window sills.
    The problem I have with using our currency to manipulate behavior is that currency ought to be a policy neutral tool or unit of measure. imagine drowning the baby in the bathtub. It would be wrong. Besides, when it comes to currency, the supply is not only infinite, but some very unsavory people have managed to accumulate much too much of it already. Indeed, the accumulation is largely a result of manipulation.
    Relative cost is useful information, but not if the measuring stick is being jiggered.
    I’m not sure their location in the temple was the problem with the money changers. But Jesus was a pragmatist and denying their enterprise was a bridge too far. Still is. I do wish the Fed would stop promising increasing interest rates on the IOUs our Treasury spits out.
    I just re-read a piece from about thirty years ago when some disadvantaged home buyers being granted mortgages at 9% was considered a praise worthy event. Boy, were we dumb.
    But then, at the present day we have political candidates promising lower interest rates on education loans the U.S, Treasury holds, as if expecting people to pay for their own education were appropriate in the first place. Pretending that work is a privilege doesn’t make it one.

  2. Trevor Stone Irvin

    I think Citizens Climate Lobby has the best plan currently and their lobbying on Capitol Hill has shown some results.

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