Can We Price Carbon? Barry Rabe talks political feasibility and durability of a key tool for reducing emissions

May 11, 2018

Professor Barry Rabe is a national thought leader in environmental politics and policy. Rabe has received three American Political Science Association awards for his research in this area and was the first social scientist to receive a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Climate Protection Award for his use of scholarship to advance policymaking. We asked him to tell us a bit about his latest book, Can We Price Carbon?

Q: When did you start writing this book?

A: I started writing in 2015, but I started thinking about it more than a decade ago.

Q: Can We Price Carbon? has been described as the first major political science analysis of the feasibility and sustainability of carbon pricing. Tell us about that.

A: How do we best reduce carbon emissions to mitigate future climate change threats? Economics has weighed in for decades on this question, endorsing such market-based policies as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. But the book considers political experience over a period of nearly two decades, examining the United States but also many other countries. Carbon pricing is actually among the least likely policies to be adopted, and it is among the most likely to be reversed or watered down once launched. That said, a few important cases have demonstrated that it can be adopted, prove durable, and perform effectively. So I try to come to terms with the question of political feasibility in a case where the economic argument is compelling but doesn’t self-implement.

Q: Who is your intended audience for this book?

A: I want to engage with political scientists and other scholars, but also a broader audience on the question of whether we can design, implement, and sustain viable climate mitigation policies going forward. That includes the growing networks engaged in North America but extends to other continents. Increasingly, I find myself in conversation with scholars and policy makers from every corner of the globe who are raising similar questions.

Q: Are there examples of governments that have been successful in pricing carbon?

A: Success stories of the past decade include British Columbia, American northeastern states, possibly California, and several EU nations. Earlier role models include the Nordic countries, including Norway, which combines high carbon prices with high standards to minimize methane emissions from extensive oil production. But these are all relatively small jurisdictions, and most do not produce fossil fuels. Other larger nations, such as China, are entering this field but it remains unclear whether their policies are serious or symbolic.

Q: Has a country with partisan divides on the existence of climate change like the U.S. been able to create a sustainable carbon pricing policy?

A: A decade ago, it was common to see more bipartisan support for carbon pricing, both in Congress and many states. Consider John McCain and Mitt Romney. That has largely disappeared, with only modest exceptions among some coastal states. But we also see partisan divides on carbon pricing elsewhere, including Australia and Canada, where there have been some policy reversals following adoption and possibly more to come. This isn’t easy anywhere.

Q: What can government officials do to implement successful policies to reduce carbon emissions, generally speaking?

A: Think near-term feasibility and long-term durability. Develop a clear plan from the outset on how to allocate carbon price revenues— and then deliver on that promise. Consider management and policy adjustment systems that can navigate inevitable bumps and surprises. Explore every possible way to make the pricing system work politically and expand supportive coalitions over time.

Q: What advice do you have for policy students who are interested in entering the world of environmental policy?

A: This is an inherently interdisciplinary field. No single discipline owns it. At their best, our students ask tough questions that push the boundaries of individual fields, while in Weill Hall and beyond. While I was in DC writing this book, I routinely ran into former students who have launched careers of meaningful public service doing just this, including remarkable work on the carbon front.


--Story by Anna Zinkel

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School.View the entire Spring 2018 State & Hill.