By Lawrence Solomon
A carbon tax has a solid theoretical basis in economics, which is why a great many economists favour it to address global warming. If you want more of something, they explain, provide incentives. If you want less of something — in this case carbon dioxide — tax it. As economists like to say, incentives matter.
Honest, intellectually rigorous economists — I’m excluding those who tout carbon taxes to promote an ideological global warming agenda — may soon need to put their climate models through new paces, however. To date, they’ve debated the economic cost of damage resulting from carbon dioxide emissions and the size of the tax needed to persuade individuals and industry to curb their emissions — should it be $50 a tonne, or $100 or $200 a tonne? With scientists increasingly pondering, and predicting, a long-lived period of global cooling, the debate may soon shift to whether we should be offering a bounty of $50, $100 or $200 a tonne to those willing to put additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
One scientist who sees global warming receding as a threat — at least until the 2050s — is Valentina Zharkova at Northumbria University in the U.K., whose research indicates that Earth will soon enter a new Little Ice Age that will last decades. Her findings, which were first presented to the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Wales in 2015, have since gathered support from hundreds of researchers. They build on the work of numerous others around the world who in recent decades have been studying how diminished solar activity — most dramatically the absence of sunspots — affects Earth’s climate. They, in turn, are building on the work of Galileo and the newly invented telescope of the early 1600s which began the concerted study of sunspots, and of British astronomer Edward Walter Maunder, who in the late 1800s linked the absence of sunspots to the depths of the last Little Ice Age two centuries earlier. Our Sun these days, ominously, is sometimes spotless.
In past little ice ages — “they keep repeating every 350-400 years because the Sun goes through this minimum activity,” Zharkova explains — crops failed and people suffered. She believes global warming may prevent the worst of a new Little Ice Age from occurring and that it may even bring a silver lining, at least temporarily. “I hope global warming will be overridden by this effect, giving humankind and the Earth 30 years” to find solutions, she said.
Other scientists, such as Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of space research at the Russian Academy of Science’s Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg and the author of the 2016 study, “The New Little Ice Age Has Started,” believes the Little Ice Age will last longer — about 100 years. The reliability of Abdussamatov’s model — informed by Earth’s 18 earlier little ice ages over the past 7,500 years, six of them in the last thousand years — have been repeatedly affirmed by real events, such as irradiance measurements from the Sun. The robustness of Abdussamatov’s model allowed him to predict in 2003 the advent of a new ice age by 2015. The models of all the scientists predicting warming, in contrast, have been proven by real events to be abject failures.
Economists who today propose a carbon tax to prevent global warming do so in the belief that the science on global warming is settled, and that a tax is required to mitigate the damage from carbon dioxide emissions. But if the science on global warming gets settled differently — with a new consensus that we face a protracted period of global cooling — these economists would want to change the incentives to encourage the carbon dioxide emissions believed needed to offset harm.
The bounties could come in the form of subsidies to the tar sands and coal mining industries, to pipelines and fracking operations, to encourage the production needed to fossil-fuel the factories and steel mills of tomorrow. Punitive taxes at the gasoline pump would be dropped, as would mileage standards on cars. Rather than the “cash for clunkers” programs of old, governments might incent the scrapping of fuel-efficient compact cars while subsidizing the purchase of SUVs. Rather than banning the incandescent light bulb, governments on the advice of economists might ban compact fluorescents.
Simultaneously, these economists would want to eliminate the many perversely-given bounties to conservation programs, solar and wind power, nuclear reactors and Tesla vehicles.
If such measures and others are required to temper the blows of brutal weather — as severe or more than that we’re now experiencing — the public would welcome whatever warming might come of pumping additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For their part, economists — those intellectually rigorous — could take grim satisfaction for having applied their knowledge to protecting the planet and its people from the loss of flora and fauna, and helping to make the world a tiny bit less inhospitable.