Skip to main content

A tax we could learn to love

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 11:00 AM EST, Mon December 3, 2012
David Frum says a carbon tax would encourage smart growth, freeing more people from traffic jams.
David Frum says a carbon tax would encourage smart growth, freeing more people from traffic jams.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Carbon dioxide emissions worldwide are at record levels
  • To strike a blow against climate change, U.S. should enact a carbon tax, Frum says
  • He says it would provide revenue, allow for middle-class tax relief, spark economy

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and his post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Global emissions of carbon dioxide hit a record high in 2011, scientists from the Global Carbon Project reported last week.

Another record is expected in 2012.

David Frum
David Frum

The earth continues to warm, and to warm fast, with serious consequences for human life and welfare. 2012 saw the worst drought in the United States in half a century. Russia suffered its second bad drought in three years. Climatic shocks to these two countries are raising food prices worldwide, posing an especially acute threat to the world's poorest. Major storm events strike harder and more often, because warming oceans create conditions for fiercer hurricanes.

The New York Times reported Friday:

"Emissions continue to grow so rapidly that an international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees, established three years ago, is on the verge of becoming unattainable."

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.



This ominous news arrives as delegates gather in Doha, Qatar, for the latest annual round of climate talks sponsored by the United Nations. Few expect the Doha talks to produce much decision.

Yet there is good news on the environmental front, important news.

Carbon emissions in the United States have declined since 2009 -- not emissions per person (those have been declining for decades), but emissions in absolute terms. The weak economy explains part of the decline, but the real hero of the story is the natural gas fracking revolution.

A decade ago, half of all the electricity generated in the United States was generated by burning coal, the most carbon-dense fuel of them all. Today, coal's share of the electricity mix has plunged to one-third, as utilities substitute cheap natural gas. Gas production has become much cheaper with the growth of fracking -- forcing open rocks by injecting fluid into cracks. Gas emits about half as much carbon per unit of energy as coal.

Australia introduces carbon tax
Sandy a taste of things to come
Europe's aviation carbon tax on hold

Environmentalists have responded warily to the advent of gas. They prefer zero-emissions power sources like wind and solar -- sources made more uncompetitive than ever by ultracheap natural gas. (Today's price: about $3.50 per thousand cubic feet, down about 70% from the prices of the mid-2000s.)

Moreover, natural gas does little (as yet) to address emissions from automobile tailpipes.

But maybe there's a way to cheer environmentalists up. Take three worrying long-term challenges: climate change, the weak economic recovery, and America's chronic budget deficits. Combine them into one. And suddenly three tough problems become one attractive solution.

Tax carbon. A tax of $20 a ton, rising at a rate of 4% per year, would over the next decade raise $1.5 trillion, according to an important new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That $1.5 trillion is almost twice as much as would be recouped to the Treasury by allowing the expiration of all Bush-era tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers.

The revenues from a carbon tax could be used to reduce the deficit while also extending new forms of payroll tax relief to middle-class families, thus supporting middle-class family incomes.

Meanwhile, the shock of slowly but steadily rising prices for fuel and electricity would drive economic changes that would accelerate U.S. economic growth.

The average age of U.S. cars and trucks has reached nearly 11 years, a record.

Millions of Americans want new cars. They are waiting for market signals as to what car to buy. They want to know that if they choose a fuel-efficient vehicle, they won't feel silly three years from now when their neighbor roars past them in a monster truck because gas has plunged back to $2 a gallon.

After five years of depression, the housing market is also ready for renewal. Again, Americans are waiting for market signals: Should they buy smaller houses nearer to work? High and rising fuel prices will encourage developers to build more mixed-use complexes that allow more people to live car-free: walking to work, entertainment, and shopping. The surest way to reduce fuel costs is to drive less.

The return to more urban living is a trend big enough to sustain America's next great economic boom. To the extent researchers can measure, the daily commute appears to be the single worst recurring source of unhappiness in American life.

If changes in city shape can offer more Americans the opportunity to walk to work through an attractive shopping mall, rather than waste 50 minutes in a car in a traffic jam, those changes will advance human happiness, spur new construction work, and incidentally save the planet.

A carbon tax will also enable the United States and Europe to press China and India to reduce their carbon emissions. A properly designed tax would apply not only to domestic goods and services, but to imports as well.

China and India would discover that their products no longer seem so cheap when a carbon tax at the border adds back the environmental costs of dirty manufacturing. To export to the world's richest consumers, China and India will have to clean up their act -- an incentive more persuasive than a hundred Doha conferences.

More jobs and growth; reduced deficits without raising income taxes; lower taxes for middle-class families; a kick in the pants to Chinese polluters; and more happiness for American commuters -- one policy instrument can do it all. What's not to love about a carbon tax?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
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 4:12 PM 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