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Club Pigou: James Hansen and Carbon Tax Aficionados

Russell Gold

James Hansen, climate scientist and scourge of our carbon-intensive lifestyle, is the subject of a 5,000-word profile in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine.

In it, he rails against the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill as watery slop and is critical of environmental-organizations-turned-Washington-insiders. Here's Mr. Hansen on environmental groups supporting the Waxman-Markey bill: "This is just stupidity...the fact that some of these organizations have become part of the Washington ‘go along, get along' establishment is very unfortunate."

Elizabeth Kolbert, the author, offers few critiques of Mr. Hansen, either directly or through others. But she does describe him as long winded and too enamored with power-point presentations that begin in the Eocene period. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, offers another caveat after praising him effusively: "I don't think he has a realistic view of what is politically possible."

In part, this is because Mr. Hansen favors a carbon tax. In the article, he calls for an emissions tax that would add roughly $1 per gallon of gasoline. And that's just a start point: he would like to see the tax go up from there.

This isn't the first time Mr. Hansen has advocated a carbon tax.

But it leads us to wonder: Is advocating a carbon tax really such a naïve vision of beltway politics. Consider the list of other folks who think a carbon tax is the most practical, sensible way forward.

There's Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Add in Al Gore, who likes to call it a "pollution" tax.

And then there's Chinese leadership, who have at times flirted with a carbon tax.

It's pretty heady and powerful company, although not all are card-carrying members of Club Pigou for the same reason. (The ‘club' is named after economist Arthur Pigou. A tax on carbon emissions is a classic Pigovian tax, because it raises the cost of an activity - emissions - in order to lower the negative cost of that activity - global warming.) Many believe that a carbon tax is the simplest, least bureaucracy-laden way to reduce carbon emissions.

Mr. Hansen certainly proved ahead of his time with his modeling of global climate change. Is his also ahead of his time with his call for a carbon tax?

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Russell Gold is energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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