The Perfect Energy Policy

(To Lose the Election)

On Monday night, Kresge Auditorium was filled with good-natured banter, verbal pats on the back, smiles, and even a hug. It was hardly the atmosphere I’d expected from two senior advisors to the presidential campaigns (R. James Woolsey on behalf of Senator McCain and Jason Grumet for Senator Obama) debating energy policy in front of a collegiate audience. Instead of outlining realistic policies and challenging the opposing viewpoint, both speakers steered the debate along a bland, albeit cheerful, tack.

Perhaps, to some, it’s reassuring that there’s little disagreement between the two camps on the “core values” of America’s future energy policy, a key issue as we face the effects of climate change and the end of cheap oil. It seems to me, though, that it’s perfectly possible for candidates to be in agreement — and both be wrong.

The fundamental reason for this is simple: no one wants to talk tough to the American people. While it’s increasingly obvious that American lifestyles (which consume five times more fossil fuel per capita than the global average) are unsustainable — even unethical — most of us would rather bemoan the fate of polar bears than turn off our computers every night. And the last person who wants to upset the real culprits — you and I — is the politician waiting nervously in front of the television screen on November 4.

Let’s pretend that politicians can, for once, speak truthfully and forthrightly without political pandering. Imagine a “voter holiday” analogous to the “gas tax holiday,” when, without fear of electoral repercussion, an honest, intelligent candidate could have his say. What real plan for energy independence and sustainability would he set before us?

He ought to start by promising to stop avoiding and start reducing. That means a firm “no” to more drilling, which is, at worst, at odds with our global warming objectives and, at best, only a temporary fix with a lag of five to ten years and billions of dollars in investment. (Bonus points for a candidate who hypothesizes what might be achieved if we focused those efforts on developing alternative energy instead.) Rather than fighting local fires by fidgeting with surpluses and gas taxes, we have to let the inferno blaze — let fossil fuel prices rise and simultaneously stop subsidizing an oil industry which has long outlived government hand-holding.

In fact, we need to stop subsidizing altogether. That means no freebies for alternative energy, either. Policy shouldn’t be microdirected, shoveling some funds to one industry and bankrolling another. Industry should succeed because the free market says its consumers are willing to foot the bill, not because politics has handed it a competitive edge.

Ending subsidies isn’t just about cutting monetary apron strings, though. Subsidies are as equally present in the “breaks” companies get from the government as they are in the checks sent to their bank accounts or the tax rebates that they receive. If Chemical Plant X releases toxic waste into the water supply, but taxpayers have to pay for the cleanup, then the plant got a subsidy equal to the cost of the remediation.

This is known as the “tragedy of the commons.” A point source — power plant, factory farm, etc. — releases waste into the air or water and isn’t held accountable. Ultimately, everyone pays a price, even those who weren’t involved in the first place. The tragedy of the commons explains why Australians developed increased rates of skin cancer after Europeans and Americans destroyed the ozone layer with CFCs. It explains why human breast milk is too toxic to cross state lines after chemical manufacturers released pollutants into the water supply. It explains why Bangladesh and Vanuatu eye their coastlines with increasing concern after first world countries pumped the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide.

To remove the implicit subsidy of the tragedy of the commons — as related to greenhouse gas emissions, at least — we must implement a carbon tax. This tax — a dollar amount levied for every ton of carbon emitted — would be broad in scope, affecting all industries equally rather than singling out the desired winners. The tax would ensure fairness by demanding that the polluters be held accountable. It would also level the playing field by allowing truly clean alternative energy to compete with fossil fuels: Renewable energy sources wouldn’t have to pass tax penalties on to their customers.

By allowing energy prices to rise and coupling price with carbon emissions, we can create a system where market forces select for fuel efficiency and, ultimately, a renewable energy economy.

The going will be tough. In today’s economic environment, it would be insensitive — and even cruel — to ignore the impact increased fuel costs will have on American families. Certainly, the plan I have sketched would be political suicide. Yet the American people are desperately in need of a leader, someone willing to admit that all is not well and that tough choices have to be made to achieve a lasting solution. We need a leader who will lead the world in adopting carbon tax standards, so that companies cannot flee with their jobs and plants to a land with fewer regulations.

I believe the American people are increasingly aware of this need and increasingly willing to listen to straight talk about our energy solution. I can only hope that we will convert this willingness into a demand for political accountability and honesty, because our politicians won’t be taking the first step.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. She welcomes feedback at hollyvm@mit.edu.