[Nordhaus] more or less ridicules claims that climate change isn’t happening or that it isn’t the result of human activity. And he calls for strong action: his best estimate of what we should be doing involves placing a substantial immediate tax on carbon....
Why is putting a price on carbon better than direct regulation of emissions? Every economist knows the arguments: efforts to reduce emissions can take place along many “margins,” and we should give people an incentive to exploit all of those margins.... The answer is, all of the above. And putting a price on carbon does, in fact, give people an incentive to do all of the above....(Emphasis added.)
And yet there is a slightly odd dissonance in this book’s emphasis on carbon pricing. As I’ve just suggested, the standard economic argument for emissions pricing comes from the observation that there are many margins on which we should operate. Yet as Nordhaus himself points out, studies attempting to analyze how we might most efficiently reduce carbon emissions strongly suggest that just one of these margins should account for the bulk of any improvement—namely, we have to sharply reduce emissions from coal-fired electricity generation. Certainly it would be good to operate on other margins, especially because these studies might be wrong—maybe, for example, it would be easier than we think for consumers to shift to a radically lower-energy lifestyle, or there might be radical new ideas for scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere. Nonetheless, the message I took from this book was that direct action to regulate emissions from electricity generation would be a surprisingly good substitute for carbon pricing—not as good, but not bad.
And this conclusion becomes especially interesting given the current legal and political situation in the United States, where nothing like a carbon-pricing scheme has a chance of getting through Congress at least until or unless Democrats regain control of both houses, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency has asserted its right and duty to regulate power plant emissions, and has already introduced rules that will probably prevent the construction of any new coal-fired plants. Taking on the existing plants is going to be much tougher and more controversial, but looks for the moment like a more feasible path than carbon pricing.
The Republican Party has consistently opposed market mechanisms to help the environment, forcing us to use regulations instead or let the environment go to pot. Some times regulations work better than others, but it would be helpful if the Republicans just gave the market a chance.