Carbon tax would send signal about direction to follow on environment

In the four decades since we first celebrated Earth Day, there has been much progress to celebrate. Bold, simple pieces of legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have spearheaded widespread efforts to improve the environment and have produced real success stories. Yet, there is little doubt that progress has slowed even as the challenges facing us have become more serious and the solutions more complex. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hold our own, let alone make substantive progress in protecting our planet.

It is still not too late to win this fight, but all of us, citizens and government, must commit to doing business differently. There are a number of important steps that we can take, including deficit-neutral solutions with broad public support and powerful benefits. For example, I’m working on a conservation title for the farm bill that strengthens our commitment to help farmers and ranchers protect the environment and address 21st century conservation goals. Another bill would provide resources and incentives to help the hopelessly flawed and bankrupt Superfund program to actually clean up dangerous sites.

These and other important steps don’t fully address the challenges of today, when we all are imperiled by accelerating global warming and extreme weather events. Too many of our efforts are devoted to complex efforts to tinker around the edges or to resurrect important but still limited efforts that too often are certainly not game-changers. We must lift our sights and step up our game. Otherwise, when it is time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we won’t be doing much celebrating.

It is time for another landmark step like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. These pieces of legislation were fabulously successful because they were not just bold and far-reaching, but also simple. Once enacted, they directly brought about the behavior we wanted.

Today that action would be a carbon tax. I’m developing with Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) a carbon tax proposal to provide a clear, unambiguous signal about the direction we want to follow. A broad carbon tax would allow market forces to do the work without hugely complicated and minimally effective schemes. If we tax carbon pollution, there will be less of it. We can slowly raise the tax to collect enough money to cushion the impact on low-income families and small businesses. To meaningfully reduce tax rates on businesses and individuals and simplify the system will require another source of revenue, as it has in all our competitor countries. The carbon tax fits that bill with many additional benefits.

The carbon tax will rationalize our use of various energy sources without complex regulations or government directly picking winners and losers. It will reduce energy instability and vulnerability to the United States and minimize the flow of money to energy-rich countries that tend not to share our interests — indeed, many are actually hostile to the U.S. A carbon tax will help promote conservation and innovation, saving consumers money over the long run while sparking economic activity.

It is not an easy time to act. Yet with the threats to our environment, the broken budget and tax system and security vulnerability, now is exactly the time for this bold action.

And Earth Day is a perfect time to start.

Blumenauer is a member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees.