‘Burn Carbon, Get Taxed. Sequester Carbon, Get Paid.’

Sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson takes on the climate challenge.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

It is a measure of our culture’s capacity for denial that facing reality has become the calling of science-fiction writers. When it comes to the incremental unfolding of climate calamity, it is the image they draw of the times ahead that will play a big role in determining how urgently we act today. In Noema this week, Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the giants of the genre and author of the seminal “The Ministry for the Future,” tells it like it is.  

Robinson cuts to the chase. In order to avoid surpassing the warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius that will tip the planet into an irreversible cascade of consequences from drought to rising sea levels, he argues that “2,600 gigatons of CO2 must be left in the ground, or we are cooked.” Yet, he points out, 75% of those “stranded assets” are located in nation-states such as Canada, Mexico or Nigeria, the revenues from which would continue to fund up to half of their public budgets as they presently do. In the case of Iraq, he notes, that figure is 90%.  

When the livelihood of so many depends on squeezing out the last drops of the fossil fuel age to maintain their societies, what Robinson calls “eco-realpolitik” dictates that we must find a way to compensate those who would lose out, or even become failed states, from a rapid renewable energy transition — or that transition will be resisted and fatally slowed.

Robinson’s complex and imaginative scheme for this very real problem is to “decarbonize” in two ways. First, by “paying ourselves” to do the right thing through the innovation of a “carbon coin,” a new currency convertible into U.S. dollars, the value of which is based not on gold, but on the sequestered CO2 reserves that remain in the ground. 

As he explains, “the idea is that anyone, from individuals to nation-states and all types of organizations in between, would be paid for decarbonizing actions. If you sequester a certain amount of carbon, you get paid one carbon coin, which would trade on currency exchanges. Because of central bank support, at its lowest value, it would be held higher than the costs of sequestering that carbon.” 

This proposal is not so far-fetched as it may seem. “Cap and trade” markets, which sell and buy permits among polluters and those who reduce their carbon emissions, already function today in China, the U.S. and Europe.

Second, Robinson proposes “carbon quantitative easing” by the major central banks, a kind of global green-Keynesianism that would sustain employment and help diversify income streams for vulnerable petro-states who leave their assets in the ground. Revenue for this purpose would also be raised by setting a real price on carbon through a tax that incorporates the externality of climate change.

In short, as he puts it pithily, “Burn carbon, get taxed; sequester carbon, get paid.”

Decarbonization Vs. Ongoing Demand

One can’t help but note the distance, closing as it may be, that remains between the current state of things and Robinson’s ruminations. On the one hand, the European Union and the United States are spending unprecedented hundreds of billions to fund their pledged transition away from fossil fuels. China is already the world’s leader in the production of electricity from renewable energy resources. 

On the other hand, China still burns more coal than the rest of the world combined and has more plants in the works. And the U.S. remains the top producer and consumer of oil, providing 20% of the world total while consuming 21% of that total. 

Clearly, infrastructure, cities and whole economies built for more than a century around fossil fuels generate a relentless momentum of ongoing demand that won’t diminish overnight, even as EVs flood the roads and solar panels sheath the rooftops. Evidence of this re-carbonizing relapse can be readily seen in the soaring profits of the major oil companies from Shell to BP to Exxon Mobil, Chevron and others, which cumulatively reached a new high of $173 billion during the first nine months of 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

It will take the time we might not have to realize what we know must happen. The fate of the planet hangs for now on the pace of this passage through carbon purgatory.

Importing the future into the present is the métier of science fiction. Its authors may not be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, as has sometimes been said about poets, but they can tip the awareness scale in the kind of epochal standoff we face today. There is no other way to get where we need to go or avoid arriving where we don’t want to end up, unless we can imagine it first.