The Carbon Tax Rainmakers

In the 1956 film The Rainmaker Burt Lancaster portrays a drifter promising a 1930’s small Kansas town he will make it rain for $100. This is during the dust bowl in the American West and people were desperate to try anything to relieve the drought. Today the rainmakers offer the same relief. It is called a carbon tax. If townspeople will pay the rainmakers, they promise it’s not too late to change the weather. So what is the difference between the rainmakers today and in the 1930’s? Not much. A carbon tax: 1) will reduce CO2 in the atmosphere hardly a whit; 2) has huge costs; and 3) needs global participation, which costs will eventually be borne mostly by the American people. Beyond this, the premise by today’s rainmakers that anthropogenic CO2 is the significant driver of global temperatures is arguable.

A carbon tax is a fee on US energy that releases CO2 to the atmosphere. How it works is that a price ($10/ton) is put on carbon emissions from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, oil). The price is then raised every year ($10/ton/yr per a Citizens Climate Lobby proposal) until fossil fuel energy is made more expensive to buy than renewable alternatives like wind and solar. Any “dividend” (returning tax to taxpayers) goes to zero once fossil fuel plants have been eliminated and electricity is now much higher in cost and no longer on-demand.

Atmospheric CO2 is currently increasing only a tiny amount, about 2 ppm/year or .0002%. The US is responsible for about 20% of this increase. Imposing a carbon tax ostensibly would cut US carbon emissions in half by 2035. Hence, this would reduce atmospheric CO2 rise by about 0.2 ppm/year. This means over a 20 year period, the atmospheric CO2 increase would be cut by only 4 ppm total.* That’s it.

Doing nothing would lead to the same CO2 levels only slightly sooner (two years). It is estimated that cutting US emissions in half by 2050 would impact earth temperatures less than 0.1 degrees C. These numbers are much too small to make any discernable difference in global temperature or weather (hurricanes, droughts, etc.)

A carbon tax (or fee) on energy in the US will cost about $3 trillion by 2030. It is estimated that the Citizen’s Climate Lobby carbon price rate will increase the cost of electricity about 8 cents/kWh by 2030.  Its intended purpose is to artificially kill coal and natural gas use (both 4 cents/kWh) compared to wind (8 cents/kWh) and solar (12-30 cents/kWh) and “…necessarily bankrupt fossil fuel power plants….” as stated by candidate Barak Obama in 2008. This will at least triple the cost of electricity most of which the middle class will pay after 2030 as there will no longer be any “dividend”.

Advocates of a carbon tax will argue that the US tax is only a start and the US needs to take the lead so the rest of the world will follow. It will take $44 trillion more to de-carbonize the rest of the world. And who will pay it? American progressives will argue that of course the 1% richest should step up with their “fair share”. On a world scale, anyone in the US making over $40,000/year (near the poverty line for a family of four) will be in the 1%.

A recent study of measured temperature data over 8,000 years indicates that the standard deviation of these data (0.98 degrees C) is higher than the temperature rise (0.85 degrees C) purported over the past century. This suggests that this rise could be due in large part to natural variation alone. Current climate models similarly underestimate uncertainties undoubtedly larger than the values being calculated. Given that water vapor/clouds and natural variability (including solar radiation) have more influence over global temperatures than CO2, it seems that the debate is focused on the wrong parameter.  Of course like the rainmakers of the 1930’s, the rainmakers of today have no ability or real interest in making it rain, only in collecting the fee (that has now gone from $100 to $3 trillion).

* The calculation is simply the 2ppm/yr current global CO2 rate increase reduced by cutting the US rate (which is 20% of the global total) in half (by the US carbon tax) over 20 years: 2 x 0.2 x 0.5 x 20= 4 ppm total.  

Craig Brown is a former Manager, Boiling Water Reactor Neutronics and Safety Analysis for Advanced Nuclear Fuels Co. (now AREVA NP) in Richland, WA., retired.