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Intelligent Machines

A Conservative Proposition for Global Warming

In 1990, a Brazilian politician proposed what he presumed would be a simple way to kick our fossil-fuel habit.

  • December 22, 2015

“The specter of global warming unites humanity in a common task. Every time anyone in the world lights a wood stove, or starts a car, or burns an acre of forest, the atmosphere receives another dose of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that threaten catastrophe in decades or centuries to come.

To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at today’s levels, the EPA recently estimated that it would be necessary to cut emissions of C02 by 50 percent. Unfortunately, such cuts would probably be impractical, because they would severely constrain economic development. A more modest target emerged from the Toronto Conference on Climate Change in 1988. There, the world’s industrialized nations agreed on a goal of cutting emissions 20 percent by the year 2005. This would not stabilize levels of greenhouse gases but would at least slow their accumulation.

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Since this is a global problem, it makes sense to exact the money needed from the international community. A levy of just $1 per barrel of oil-­equivalent, or $6 per ton of coal-equivalent, would generate an income of $50 billion per year—more than enough to pay for the necessary measures.

The purpose of the carbon tax would not be primarily to discourage energy consumption, any more than a highway toll is intended to discourage automobile travel. Rather, the tax would be a fair way to raise the money needed to fund a transition into an ecologically more benign economy.

Admittedly, a carbon tax may not be politically feasible in many countries right now. But attitudes are rapidly changing as people absorb the implications of inaction.

Given the high stakes, an internationally agreed-upon tax is not a very radical step. Coöperation among nations will be based not purely on goodwill but also on enlightened self-interest. The sums of money needed to stabilize the atmosphere are not really that large: $50 billion represents 0.4 percent of the gross domestic product of the industrialized world. Spending such a sum to avoid environmental catastrophe seems a prudent—and, in the most basic sense, conservative—proposition.”

Excerpted from “How to Stop Global Warming,” by José Goldemberg, Brazil’s secretary of state for science and technology, in the November 1990 issue of Technology Review.

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