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 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT