Henry Paulson, President Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury before and during the 2008 financial crisis, has learned his lesson: we need “to act before problems become too big to manage.”
Now Paulson is calling on his fellow Republicans – and the rest of us – to apply that lesson to the threat of climate change. In a remarkable op-ed article in last Sunday’s New York Times, Paulson says “This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore. I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.”
Continuing on a path of carbon dependence, he says is “locking us in for long-term consequences that we will not be able to change but only adapt to, at enormous cost.”
He cites the more rapid than predicted melting of Arctic ice, and the stunning announcement last month that the West Antarctic ice sheet is in an irreversible melt that may raise sea levels by 14 feet over the next century or more.
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And he applies the wisdom gained from the economy’s near-collapse: “With that experience indelibly affecting my perspective, viewing climate change in terms of risk assessment and risk management makes clear to me that taking a cautiously conservative stance – that is, waiting for more information before acting – is actually taking a very radical risk.”
Paulson proposes a straightforward but radical solution: a carbon tax, which would “change the behavior of both individuals and businesses.” He couples this with a call for the end of all fossil fuel and renewable energy subsidies, since renewable energy could out-compete dirty fuels if pollution costs were built into their pricing.
To those who would argue that this is excessive government intervention, Paulson counters that not acting locks government into spiraling costs to mitigate the effects of climate change by helping communities respond to more floods, droughts, crop failures, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and rising seas.
A tax on carbon dioxide emissions would provide market incentives for change – something his fellow Republicans might be persuaded to endorse, if only their Tea Party troglodyte faction could overcome its anti-science denial of the looming catastrophe of a warming planet.
One might hope that Paulson’s cri de couer will be a turning point for Republicans. Could it open a door to a coalition between Democrats and rational Republicans that could actually take action on climate change? At a time when Congress – and a large segment of the American public – is still in denial and still skeptical of settled science – it’s a long shot.
Even so, it’s profoundly encouraging that as rock-ribbed a Republican as Paulson would take leadership on this issue, and call on the titans of industry and finance to join him. If he can persuade his peers that their long-term interests require a solution to the climate crisis, the tide could finally turn. We hope for his swift success.