An article in the Atlantic last week stated that near-term prospects for a carbon tax in the United States are unlikely. With 47 years of progress and discussion on the topic, including 3,589 economists who stated that a carbon tax would be the most cost-effective method to reducing carbon emissions, the political environment in the United States still makes the use of this effective policy tool highly unlikely any time soon (Meyer 2021). Even though a carbon tax would be efficient, our U.S. system based on business lobbyist controlling politics makes it difficult when fossil fuel companies are rallying against it aggressively. The continued lack of effective action around carbon pollution leads to tipping point issues for the environment that will be difficult or impossible to mitigate in the future.
Air pollution is particularly difficult to deal with because the impacts from one region can generate issues with other regions, making it one of the most complex and widespread environmental problems (McKinney, et al. 2019, 436). Carbon emissions to the atmosphere create massive impacts to the hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere like melting ice caps, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, desertification, habitat loss, and species die-outs and extinctions (Ivanovich 2017). One of the major near-term tipping points revolves around Artic sea ice melts. Due to the presence of a positive feedback loop where melting water exposes darker ocean waters, more sunlight is absorbed instead of reflected which leads to greater temperatures. Those increased temperatures then melt more ice, furthering the absorption of more sunlight and the trapping of more heat. The complete disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice may already be near or past the tipping point due to climate change from greenhouse gas emissions (Ivanovich 2017). There are other ice sheets, like in Greenland and the West Antarctic, that are also being similarly impacted that will gradually lead to sea-level rise, loss of coastal habitats, and loss of life. The emissions of carbon dioxide may already have led to the passing of many environmental tipping points, but an all-solutions approach to reducing emissions as much as possible will be critical to limiting the crossing of additional tipping points.
When looking at how to minimize environmental tipping points, and correct system issues, it is important to look at leverage points in the system. Meadows (2008, 145-165) highlights the top twelve leverage points in order of effectiveness, and rules like incentives, punishments, and constraints are the fifth most effective on the list. As mentioned early, a carbon tax is one of the most efficient and effective solutions to minimizing carbon dioxide emissions, however, in the United States the chances of implementing one in the near term are very low. People with power over the rules wield true power, and to understand the system issues, it is important to identify the issue in the United States, and global, energy systems that come from the fact that fossil fuel businesses are able to lobby Congress to create laws that allow for the continued use of fossil fuels (Meadows and Wright 2008, 158). To turn this system trap into a leverage opportunity would require the removal of lobbying and funding from corporations during the creation of laws. This issue not only applies to atmospheric pollution, but to many other areas of the environment, economy, and society as well, making it a critical leverage point in changing many systems towards more beneficial outcomes.
As was seen with the issue of ozone depletion, carbon dioxide pollution needs a global rally to reduce the long-term impacts to the environment. Like CFCs that have long life expectancies and will continue to cause issues even after global agreements to move away from the use of CFCs, carbon dioxide also has delayed impacts, natural sources, and can lead to disastrous effects (McKinney, et al. 2019, 467-472). The primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is causing global warming and climate change from the use of fossil fuels for energy. A cost efficient and effective way to discourage the burning of fossil fuels is through a carbon tax (McKinney, et al. 2019, 490). A carbon tax would also generate incentives for companies that rely on fossil fuels to invest in carbon capture and sequestration technology. This technology would not only help reduce emissions while providing time to transition to renewable energy resources and updated transmission grids, but this technology will also help reduce atmospheric pollution from other waste-energy nexus renewables like biomass and biogas that comes from municipal solid waste and wastewater treatment plants. However, for the reduction of fossil fuel use, and the increased investment in technology for carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, to be implemented it requires that corporations and money are removed from the congressional law-writing process to ensure that an effective and efficient carbon tax can be implemented.
It seems many problems with lack of action on large environmental issues can boil down to getting the money out of politics and removing corporations’ abilities to lobby the government to write rules in favor of their industry. What other environmental issues do you think could be better solved from removing money from politics?
Ivanovich, Casey. 2017. “Everything You Need to Know About Climate Tipping Points.” Environmental Defense Fund. November 1. Accessed July 26, 2021. http://blogs.edf.org/climate411/2017/11/01/everything-you-need-to-know-about-climate-tipping-points/.
McKinney, Michael L., Robert M. Schoch, Logan Yonavjak, and Grant A. Mincy. 2019. Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. 2008. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub.
Meyer, Robinson. 2021. “Carbon Tax, Beloved Policy to Fix Climate Change, Is Dead at 47.” The Atlantic. July 20. Accessed July 26, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/07/obituary-carbon-tax-beloved-climate-policy-dies-47/619507/.