mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Letting polluters off the hook

(Host intro): The group that’s been issuing a series of reports on
global warming is due out with its third installment tomorrow. And as
happened with editions one and two, negotiations are going right down
to the final hours.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is meeting in Bangkok,
Thailand trying to iron out the differences. And over here, Congress
is expected to pass some kind of global warming bill this year.

But commentator Mark Hertsgaard worries lawmakers might wind up
rewarding the very companies that have resisted regulations in the

(Mark Hertsgaard): Unlike lead or asbestos, we can’t just ban greenhouse
gases. That would shut down America’s factories and vehicles
overnight. But if we put the right price on greenhouse gases,
especially carbon dioxide, we’ll use less of them.

The easiest way to do that is a carbon tax. That would increase the
prices of gasoline, electricity and other fuels. But we could cut
payroll taxes to offset any harm to the poor or the larger economy.

Most proposals in Congress, however, favor supposedly putting the
market in charge. Under the so-called cap-and-trade system, the right
to emit carbon would become a commodity.

The government would issue carbon emissions permits. Big polluters
could buy the right to pollute from companies that haven’t used up
their permitted pollution levels.

We’d reduce the permits over time, giving companies an incentive: the
less carbon they emit, the more money they could make by selling their
unused quota to someone else.

The trouble is, Congress seems inclined to give these emission permits
away for free, rather than have companies buy them at auction in an
open market. Most global warming bills contain grandfather clauses
that give companies free permits for up to 90 percent of their current

That’s a complete violation of the polluter pays principle and it
distorts honest markets. It would also give massive subsidies to the
biggest polluters, while penalizing companies that did invest in
emissions reductions.

Such a distorted system would also deprive taxpayers of the $300
billion a year the carbon-trading market is expected to generate.
Money that could be invested in green-energy development.

A carbon tax obviously makes more sense. But if lawmakers decide that
markets are their preferred tool to fight global warming, then those
markets must be free and fair. No giveaways, no favoritism. Not even
for grandfathers.

(Host): Mark Hertsgaard’s most recent book is called “Earth



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.