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Monday, January 26, 2009

Ben Stein's Dirty Work: Dealing with Air Pollution

Posted on Monday, January 26, 2009, 12:00AM

Let me be clear: I hate air pollution.

When I am in a traffic jam on the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles, with thousands of cars and trucks belching out carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, I feel as if I'm being gassed by my fellow motorists -- and they probably feel the same way about me.

I am not entirely convinced that the burning of gasoline causes climate change, and there are smart people with good points on both sides of this issue. But I do assume that filling the atmosphere with CO2 and CO is not good for children and most other living things. And there is an economic impact. A recent study co-authored by two Cal State Fullerton economics professors shows that air pollution costs the California economy more than $28 billion per year.

What Can We Do?

So what can we do about this problem? The goal, obviously, is to greatly reduce the amount of carbon being released into the world's atmosphere. But how do we do that?

I will preface my first musing with this: I am a fan of Governor Schwarzenegger's. But I don't understand how actions to reduce the amount of carbon gases being produced in California (still a great state despite the recession) will do much good for the overall problems of Earth's atmosphere. Likewise, I don't see how lowering carbon emissions in Maryland (my home state) or Connecticut or New York will mean much to the life of our planet.

Gases do not just stay in one place. If you lower carbon emissions in California or Maryland while people in Rio and Mumbai are still producing gases as fast as they can, and if these gases spread all over the earth, then what good can any one U.S. state's action do? I am told by a friend who is a meteorologist that we do not have even a vague idea of where the inflection points are at which the climate and the healthfulness of the air will be affected by a cut in CO2 and CO in any one place.

I keep wondering why we would bother to do these cuts at all unless we can get global enforceable accords with no exemptions. Perhaps someone out there can answer that one for me.

How to Make the Cuts

Then there is the matter of how to cut carbon in the first place. Many people, including our new president, seem to favor the cap and trade method. In this system, a cap limit will be set on all U.S. carbon emissions. Within that limit, individual company caps will be set. If you go under the cap, you can sell your unused carbon credits to someone who is over the limit and needs credits. There would even be a carbon trading exchange for trading these credits.

But who knows what the total cap should be? Would that not assume a level of precision in economic and scientific measurements that we lack?

And how do we assign the individual limits to each company? That requires a government bureaucracy so far superior to any I have ever seen that it's breathtaking.

Scientific Secret Police

How do you decide how many credits per dollar of output each company gets? How do you measure their carbon emissions? How do you decide if a company is so fragile economically that it needs extra credits from Uncle Sam? This sounds like a job for the scientific secret police.

And what about that carbon trading exchange? In bad times, the price of the credits will collapse and polluters can buy them on the ultra cheap and continue to pollute. How is this a good thing?

And again, what good does it do mankind if the U.S. caps its emissions while India and Brazil are still grinding out carbon-based gases? And why should we make these cuts and possibly imperil our economy if others are still polluting?

A Tax on Output

If we do need to cut carbon output -- and I assume that we do -- might not a simple tax on carbon output be a better idea than cap and trade? Yes, this idea has flaws as well, and there are questions to mull. For example, how much should the tax be and who, if anyone, should be exempt?

And again we have the international problem. But at least the tax could be held constant so that we would have a steady incentive to reduce carbon emissions. And we could use the proceeds to lower other taxes and stimulate our economy.

This is a complicated and important issue -- so I hope for lots of thought ahead of any actions.