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A simple answer to really big problems

You only have to open your newspaper or turn on your TV to learn that the United States is facing unprecedented economic hurdles -- a financial downturn, an aging population, millions out of work including kids who can't afford to go to college and a looming future debt crisis.

Yes, and add to that a seemingly paralyzed government unable to take decisive action. Yet, trillions of dollars sit in corporate accounts waiting for the next big thing.

Then there's the national energy policy ... er, I mean the lack of one. Did you know our national economy runs on oil and that sky-high oil prices depress economic activity and raise prices, eventually showing up in your grocery store?

Do you know how many billions have been spent cleaning up oil spills that continue to pollute decades after?

Have you heard of the sickness and disease caused by the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal? Have you suffered through the 10 years of war over oil in parts of the world where we're not welcome? And don't let people tell you Canadian oil is the answer. Development of the tar sands will only add to the problem.

There's a way out. It's the carbon tax -- a tax on fossil fuels that you impose at the wellhead, the mine or the port of entry if it's from a foreign source. Economists on right and left recommend the carbon tax as a way to make dirty fuel more expensive and thereby reduce its use. People use less and look for ways to conserve. You legislate a predictable yearly tax increase that lets everybody know where it's going.

Some people will be hurt by even a small increase in their gas or fuel costs. But not if you take those tax revenues and return them to the American people. You can write a check to families or use part of it to fund Social Security, but give it back!

Alaska does this. British Colombia enacted a carbon tax in spite of oil company protests and found wide public support. Citizen's Climate Lobby studies indicate that 70 percent of American households would come out ahead if Congress adopted this "fee and dividend" approach.

People with higher incomes who use more dirty energy will pay more. But if they reduce their dirty energy use, they, too, will benefit. Because its revenue neutral, this is a tax that even tax opponents can support.

But how does a carbon tax help the ailing economy? The almost $3 trillion (yes, trillion) sitting in corporations and venture capitalists' bank accounts is just dead money at present.

Business hates uncertainty and demand is down. No need to hire or develop new businesses. A tax on coal, oil and natural gas will send a clear signal to investors and consumers alike.

With predictable policy on energy, we will see an explosion of investment in clean energy -- wind, solar, geothermal, and the like.

Only the private sector can create this sea change in our use of energy.

Because government cannot create the shift to clean energy with the efficiency of the private sector, government should not favor one form of clean over another, but government can lend support with research and development of several promising new directions in clean energy, as it did with the giant infrastructure projects mid 20th Century and later the Internet.

The space program alone created numberless new advances that simplified our lives and aided our economy.

Clean energy companies are growing because of growing demand, but they can't scale up because of price competition from government-subsidized foreign companies and a fossil fuel industry that doesn't pay the full cost of dirty energy --the foreign wars, the sickness, the depletion of our natural resources and the cost of floods, droughts, and wind storms induced by climate change.

A tax on dirty fuel will redress the public for those costs now borne by the health and insurance industries, slow down climate change, and help to extricate our great nation from wars no longer made necessary by our need for foreign oil.

Within the next few weeks, two visionary legislators will introduce legislation in Congress to create a carbon tax.

With public support of this simple idea, the nation can regain its confidence and move ahead.

America has been a creative engine for the world. We can be again. Economic growth clearly cannot be achieved with bullets and world leaders are waiting for America once again to lead the way to a more prosperous, more livable world.

Without fear of economic disparity, other nations can then enact their own carbon legislation. That is why we must enact a carbon tax. -- Jeanne Johnson, rural Alexandria

(Jeane Johnson chairs the 7th Congressional District Citizen's Climate Lobby.)