Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

To end the fiscal showdown, tax carbon

By Van Jones and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Special to CNN
updated 9:30 PM EST, Thu March 7, 2013
There are 3 million green jobs in America, and a carbon tax could create more, say Van Jones and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins.
There are 3 million green jobs in America, and a carbon tax could create more, say Van Jones and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jones and Ellis-Lamkins: A tax on carbon emissions could raise $1.25 trillion over 10 years
  • Carbon in the atmosphere costs U.S. an estimated $70 billion each year, they say
  • Unlike cutting Medicare and Social Security, a carbon tax is a political winner, they say
  • One study found the U.S. could create up to 1.7 million jobs with a carbon tax, they say

Editor's note: Van Jones, a CNN contributor, is president and founder of Rebuild the Dream, an online platform for political innovation focused on policy, economics and media. He was President Obama's green jobs adviser in 2009. He is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green for All.

(CNN) -- At his official post-election press conference, President Obama told reporters that he's serious about fighting climate change while creating jobs. "We can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader," he said, "I think that's something that the American people would support."

We have just the answer. It's not a new idea, but as the two parties face off over the federal budget, it could be the path forward. There's a tool we can use to answer the public's call for more jobs -- without cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: a carbon tax.

Van Jones
Van Jones
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

One analysis by the Congressional Budget Office says a moderate, $20-per-ton tax on carbon emissions could raise $1.25 trillion over 10 years. And the savings don't stop there. For decades, the oil and coal industries have passed along their costs to the rest of us, in the form of asthma treatment, emergency room visits, doctor bills and missed days of school and work. Combined with droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy, rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere cost our nation an estimated $70 billion each year.

That's real money. And unlike cutting Medicare and Social Security, a carbon tax is a political winner. A large and growing super-majority of Americans -- 70% -- believe climate change is a real problem. A Yale University national survey found overwhelming majorities in favor of bold action like a carbon tax. Even the far-right American Enterprise Institute has been willing to talk about the benefits of a carbon tax, and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has flirted with the idea.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Yes, polluters will fight a carbon tax tooth and nail, just like tobacco companies raged against cigarette taxes. But far from costing jobs, a carbon tax will provide a net benefit to our economy, especially if we start the carbon tax conversation by making sure miners and other coal industry workers -- the people who have sacrificed their lungs, and in some instances even their lives, so that we can keep the lights on -- are among the biggest winners.

Experts anticipate that the $500 billion in scheduled federal budget cuts will cost us nearly one million jobs. The $1.25 trillion from a carbon tax would allow us to avoid these cuts with money to spare to pay down the deficit, and to maintain clean energy investments that create 3.2 times as many jobs per dollar than subsidies for fossil fuels. A carbon tax would also reduce barriers to market entry for clean-energy startups facing an entrenched fossil fuel industry. There are already 3.1 million green jobs in America -- imagine how many more there would be if we leveled the playing field instead of subsidizing oil and coal companies.

Europe's aviation carbon tax on hold

Finally, one study by the Center for American Progress and the Political Economy Research institute found that we could create up to 1.7 million jobs simply by putting a price on carbon. The fact is, our economy will only be stronger and our communities healthier if we tax pollution instead of subsidizing it -- and invest in the new industries of tomorrow.

A carbon tax is really that rarest of ideas, a win-win-win solution that solves multiple problems at once. Tax polluters so we can pay down our debt without slashing the safety net? Win. Spur investment in new technologies and spark the creation of clean-energy manufacturing jobs right here in America? Win. And take a long-overdue step toward solving the climate crisis that already costs so much, and will only get worse? Win.

The question isn't whether this vision is right for America -- nearly everyone wants to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, bring home a decent paycheck and retire with security.

The only question is if Washington has the courage to seize this opportunity. If they do, this moment won't be remembered as a drawn-out partisan showdown over spending, but as the launching pad from which we began to sail into a healthier, more prosperous future.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT