Georgist Proposals and
the Global Warming Controversy

Edward Lawrence

[A response made 23 December, 2007, to comments
made by Charles S. Haughey, 9 July, 2007]

I want to thank Mr. Charles S. Haughey of Northridge, California, for commenting on my paper The Green Tax Shift, submitted to Common Ground - USA as a possible Background Paper. In that paper I mention two bills introduced in Congress (HR 2069 and S 280) to address the issue of global warming, or global climate change. Dialog on vital issues among Georgists is important and constructive, and should be encouraged.

Mr. Haughey in his July 9, 2007 letter to Nadine Stoner presents six points (with 15 sub-points) concerning my paper.

1. His first point is: "Both bills presume a problem of global warming and seek to solve it."

In the sub-points he attempts to portray global warming as merely a long-term natural cyclical trend, not affected by the actions of man. He states that these long-term trends are in no way related to CO2 levels.

It is undoubtedly true that there are long term trends concerning warming and cooling of the earths atmosphere. In the past these trends, without the impact of industrialization, took 1,500 to 10,000 years to go from trough to peak. What took over 1,500 years in the past, however, could happen within a hundred years or less when these natural trends are augmented by the CO2 discharged by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels.

He is probably correct that the long-term trends are not caused by CO2 levels. Increased CO2 levels, however, accelerate the rate of temperature change over the short-term.

The suggestion that the two congressional bills seek to "solve" global warming is not accurate. Global warming is here, and it is likely that nothing we can do will "solve" it. All we can hope for is to lessen the negative impact that it will have on the quality of life of future generations.

2. His second point is: "Both bills presume that the global warming is due to man-made CO2 activity."

As suggested above, man-made CO2 contributes to global warming, but it is not the sole cause. There is no doubt among the vast majority of scientists that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased due to human burning of fossil fuels.

3. His third point is: "Your letter accepts the premise of global warming as a man-made problem and proposes a choice between the two Congressional bills as solutions to the problem."

Again, global warming is intensified and accelerated by man, not entirely caused by man. The two bills introduced in Congress do not represent the entire choice available to us; they are merely the first two bills that seek to address the problem. And as mentioned above, they will not "solve" the problem - it is probably too late for a solution. They can only delay and perhaps mitigate the negative impact of what we are doing to our environment.

4. His fourth point is: "You reference the letter from Ed Lawrence as justification for Georgist action as a Georgist problem needing a solution."

Mr. Haughey states that: "George would have taxed land use, including extraction, and this is now in effect with heavy taxes on fuel extraction."

I am not aware of any "heavy taxes" on fuel extraction.

He goes on to say that I propose to "…tax and control or regulate commerce in the use of the extracted product, precisely contrary to George's teaching…." What I am proposing is to have the public be compensated for the privilege of disposing of pollution in the atmosphere, which is part of the public commons belonging to all of us, not merely to the oil companies, auto manufacturers, and chemical companies. When corporations and drivers of Hummers & SUVs have this privilege of dumping CO2 into the public commons, George would certainly, if he were here today, say they should compensate the public for the privilege of doing so.

Mr. Haughey says that I suggest that the carbon tax receipts "…could be given to the poor - not a Georgist idea." He is right that this is not a Georgist idea, but wrong in suggesting that I proposed it.

I specifically suggested that proceeds could be used to provide a "citizen's bonus" as is being done with oil royalty revenues in Alaska. This bonus would go to everyone, not just the poor. I also suggested that it might be used for public transit, which would reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. This would benefit the poor, but it would also benefit middle and upper income people as well if they chose to commute by public transit rather than by car. It is true that without a citizen's bonus (or an off-setting reduction in employment taxes) that a carbon tax would be regressive, and Henry George would not likely favor a regressive tax.

5. His fifth point is: "The fact that global warming appears to be happening now, but will probably turn to cooling within a dozen yeas, which is a much greater problem than the warming."

He quotes Professor Timothy Patterson's statement that global cooling may be a problem in the future, and says that some solar scientists predict that by 2020 the sun may be entering a period of lower brightness, thereby bringing on global cooling. But if we wait and do nothing until then, it may be too late to take any meaningful action to address the issue. Increasing temperatures and CO2 are not things that may happen in the future - they are already happening.

6. His final point is: "Man's activities have a small, and not easily measured effect on our climate."

Man's impact is not small, and just because it is difficult to measure the effect exactly does not mean that we should ignore this impact.

It is good that Mr. Haughey raises the points that he does. Considering them and responding to them leads to a better understanding of the issues on both sides. Unfortunately, politicians such as George W. Bush use such questioning as an excuse to justify doing nothing about global warming.

We should ask ourselves: What if global warming is being accelerated by man's use of fossil fuels, and we did nothing about it - what would be the impact?

We all know the answer: rising sea levels, changes in the ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, and massive migration, war, disease, water shortages, and famine.

On the other hand: What if Mr. Haughey and George W. Bush are right, and our burning of fossil fuels does not in fact contribute to global warming - but we take steps to address it anyway - what would be the impact?

The impact would be improved public transit in our country (creating many new jobs in the process); improved gas mileage for our automobiles; a longer period of time to develop alternative energy sources before we reach the point of peak oil; and less need to go to war to secure overseas oil sources. Any increases in funding public transit and developing alternative energy sources could likely be off-set by reductions in military spending, so there would not need to be an adverse impact on U.S. taxpayers.

Considering the likely impacts, is it better to address the problem of global warming now (even if it were not accelerated by man's actions), or is it better to ignore the issue?