26 Years Ago
MIT Technology Review (ISSN 1099-274X), January/February 2016 Issue, Reg. U.S. Patent Office, is published bimonthly by MIT Technology Review, 1 Main St. Suite 13, Cambridge, MA 02142-1517. Entire contents ©2016. The editors
seek diverse views, and authors’ opinions do not represent the official policies of their institutions or those of MIT. Periodicals postage paid at Boston, MA, and additional mailing offices. Postmaster: send address changes to MIT
Technology Review, Subscriber Services, PO Box 5001, Big Sandy, TX 75755, or via the Internet at www.technologyreview.com/customerservice. Basic subscription rates: $41.94 per year within the United States; in all other countries,
US$54. Publication Mail Agreement Number 40621028. Send undeliverable Canadian copies to PO Box 1051 Fort Erie, ON L2A 6C7. Printed in U.S.A. Audited by the Alliance for Audited Media
A Conservative Proposition
for Global Warming
In 1990, a Brazilian politician proposed what he presumed
would be a simple way to kick our fossil-fuel habit.
The specter of global warming unites humanity in a common
task. Every time anyone in the world lights a wood stove, or
starts a car, or burns an acre of forest, the atmosphere receives
another dose of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases
that threaten catastrophe in decades or centuries to come.
To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at today’s
levels, the EPA recently estimated that it would be necessary to cut emissions of C02 by 50 percent. Unfortunately, such cuts would probably be
impractical, because they would severely constrain economic development.
A more modest target emerged from the Toronto Conference on Climate
Change in 1988. There, the world’s industrialized nations agreed on a goal
of cutting emissions 20 percent by the year 2005. This would not stabilize
levels of greenhouse gases but would at least slow their accumulation.
Since this is a global problem, it makes sense to exact the money needed
from the international community. A levy of just $1 per barrel of oil-equivalent, or $6 per ton of coal-equivalent, would generate an income of
$50 billion per year—more than enough to pay for the necessary measures.
The purpose of the carbon tax would not be primarily to discourage
energy consumption, any more than a highway toll is intended to discourage automobile travel. Rather, the tax would be a fair way to raise the money
needed to fund a transition into an ecologically more benign economy.
Admittedly, a carbon tax may not be politically feasible in many countries right now. But attitudes are rapidly changing as people absorb the
implications of inaction.
Given the high stakes, an internationally agreed-upon tax is not a very
radical step. Coöperation among nations will be based not purely on goodwill but also on enlightened self-interest. The sums of money needed to stabilize the atmosphere are not really that large: $50 billion represents 0.4
percent of the gross domestic product of the industrialized world. Spending
such a sum to avoid environmental catastrophe seems a prudent—and, in
the most basic sense, conservative—proposition.”
Excerpted from “How to Stop Global Warming,” by José Goldemberg, Brazil’s
secretary of state for science and technology, in the November 1990 issue of