Saturday, December 27, 2008

Living well with less energy - lessons from tobacco

If we had the right price signals, we could live well with far less energy that we use now.

Consider the passively heated home. It's a marvel of efficient engineering and, in some climates, can operate without a dedicated furnace.

Of course we can't rebuild all our homes this way, but it's easy to imagine that, over the next twenty-five years, per capita US energy consumption could fall by 3-5% a year even as GDP rises.

Of course that won't happen with oil company ads urging energy conservation. Those remind me of tobacco ads urging health lifestyles. You know, the ads the tobacco companies ran when they were trying to fend off cigarette taxes.

The tobacco taxes came, and, shock, twenty years later public smoking is rare in Minnesota.

It's very hard to stop smoking, but people did it. It's easier never to start smoking, and people did that too. The campaign against smoking is a blueprint for transforming America's energy habit.

The campaign needs to start with price signals. Without them we're just pretending. Regulations are a feeble substitute for a serious carbon tax.

Today the NYT Editorial page called for a gasoline tax offset by other tax reductions. This is only the beginning of what will be a long and terrible political process that will need support from every friend of reason.

If we're lucky carbon and gas taxes will be a core campaign issue in 2008. It will be a tough campaign of course, we know the GOP will continue their war against civilization and reason, we know the GOP will do everything possible to leave the human world a smoldering ruin*.

I hope you've enjoyed your pre-inaugural rest, but that's over now.

* Which makes the GOP, ironically, a sort of Green party -- but that's another story.

12/28/08: Uh-Oh. Friedman agrees. Which reminds me that gasoline and carbon taxes are quite different. A gasoline tax that leads to electric cards powered by coal-fueled plants would be an absolute disaster. The primary argument for a gasoline tax is to reduce dependency on Saudi Arabia, but I suspect that's a misguided mission. The carbon tax is what we need; a gasoline tax is secondary.

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