Be a Hero, Lamar

Sen. Alexander should make clean air his legacy

Sen. Lamar Alexander has a chance to be a hero remembered for generations. In the U.S. Senate, there are a number of bills that would regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but they keep falling one vote shy of moving out of committee. Alexander is on that committee, but he is voting the pro-polluter party line.

Despite his wavering commitment, Sen. Alexander is among the few Republicans who take air pollution seriously. He has worked to limit mercury and particulate releases, and he understands that excessive emissions can damage tourism, health, and agriculture. On the other hand, he opposes wind power because he thinks turbines are ugly. Like other elites who own property on Martha's Vineyard, Alexander cannot bear the prospect of tiny, spinning specks on the horizon marring his perfect sunset view. The view from his mountain property in Blount County also plays an important role in determining his stances on energy and emissions issues.

It is time for Sen. Alexander to transcend self-interest and lead Republicans and the United States out of the era of profligate pollution and into the era of smart energy. Future generations will look back fondly at the time when emissions stopped growing and energy gluttony was curtailed. They will resent us for burning fossil fuels frivolously and for poisoning the oceans, but they will celebrate those who turn the tide toward sustainable living. However sick the planet is in a century, people will be grateful for the moment things stopped getting worse.

"Leave the world better than you found it" is not the golden rule, but it is a corollary. Most of us say we strive for that standard, but as a society, we are failing. We know our coal-burning and transportation-intensive economy cannot be sustained, but we keep revving the engines anyway. Sen. Alexander has a chance to teach Republicans that the unborn need a better inheritance than dirty air, filthy oceans, and butchered mountains, and he can do it by making sure carbon controls begin with this Congress.

Since he seems confused about which approach to support, I will tell him the best way to control carbon emissions: a direct tax on industrial carbon production. Cap-and-trade is needlessly complicated and unpredictable. The simplest and fairest way to allow market forces to solve emissions problems is for Congress to declare how much carbon tax it will collect, then split payments among producers in proportion to how much they pollute. This makes the economic impact predictable and manageable.

A carbon tax could be phased in, starting at a penny per ton. The actual cost of carbon pollution is probably two orders of magnitude higher, but we have been letting industry pollute so cheaply for so long, they will have to be weaned slowly from the teat of socialized dumping. Only when waste costs have been internalized into the energy market will it be truly free.

Estimating the cost of carbon dioxide pollution is an inexact science combining many impacts, some good, but most mildly bad. Instead of trying to guess what increased hurricane risks in 2075 are worth in 2008 dollars, Congress should aim for a tax large enough to justify investments in cleaner technologies, but with minimal impact on retail prices.

Congressional dawdling over the past three decades makes this balancing act harder, so we need a leader to break the grip of coal and oil interests soon and steer the country toward a healthy future. Global warming gives storms more energy, and hurricanes do occasionally hit Martha's Vineyard.

Many Democrats are ready to tackle emissions, and Lamar Alexander is just the guy to lead Republicans out of the embarrassing era of anti-science their party has descended into. Teddy Roosevelt went to the Dakotas to kill one of the last bison, but he wound up protecting them from extinction. If our senator finds the courage to protect the atmosphere, may he be remembered as fondly.