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Carbon tax needed, but too many leaders shy away

Republicans serve the corporations, and many Democrats fear backlash.

Pelicans, dolphins, and sea turtles too,

All suffocating in sticky black goo,

Sandy white beaches beginning to spoil,

Littered with tar balls and stinky brown oil.

BP officials chanting 'It's not our fault,

But don't worry about it, there's cash in our vault,

We'll pay for the damage, we'll clean up the spill,

We'll stop oil from gushing, using top kill.

And when top kill fails there's no need for alarm,

We'll pay off the fishermen and teach them to farm!' "

So starts a poem about the BP spill that was penned by my assistant, Edie Rossborough. Edie's 11-year-old daughter has been very concerned about the spill and its damage, prompting Edie to put her concerns into verse.

Edie's poem got me thinking about the spill and its impact all across the country. It is a particularly disturbing thought that oil continues to gush out into the ocean 24/7. In spite of all the containment efforts, the oil slick is growing and inexorably shifting shoreward to cover sea birds, animals, and soon, vast swatches of the Louisiana and Florida coasts.

The mayor of one of the small coastal towns in the Florida panhandle said in an interview last week: "Our beaches are clear. I recommend visiting as soon as you can." Unfortunately, he sounds a bit like the fellow in the old joke who leapt from the 48th floor of a building and called out on the way down: "20th floor and I'm still OK." You know how that one ends.

We also know how the current catastrophe playing out in the Gulf will end. There will be enormous destruction of fragile habitats; many of the areas' best beaches left with gooey, messy oil cleanup that will go on for months; and fishing grounds that will be scarred, perhaps for years.

In the end, and that will be a long time coming, the Gulf Coast will survive. It will never be the same, but we can hope that the healing powers of nature will eventually overcome man's best efforts to upset natural balances.

Billions of dollars will have been spent. BP may or may not live to see the finish. All to satisfy America's enormous thirst for fossil fuels.

As President Obama pointed out in his address from the Oval Office last week, the United States, with 4 percent of the world's population, consumes 20 percent of the world's energy. We are indeed a privileged and profligate people.

The president rightly suggested that one lesson from this disaster is that we must accelerate our development of alternative energy and curb our energy appetite.

One way to do this is by a carbon tax both as a way to encourage us to use less – carbon products, including gasoline, will be more expensive – but also as a way to fund ventures for the development of other forms of energy such as solar and wind.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of carbon tax legislation last year in the form of a "cap-and-trade" bill. While it is shot through with loopholes and delays in its implementation guidelines, it is a start. Who could be against such a sensible, much-needed policy? Powerful oil and other energy interests, of course. The Party of No, of course.

Conventional big energy wants nothing to do with a tax on their products that might limit energy consumption. Not surprisingly, they favor more development. Republicans, as a party, have no constructive approach to long-term energy policy. During the Bush presidency the nation turned its back on energy conservation efforts and expanded oil drilling wherever feasible, even in deep water where we have painfully seen the limitations of this technology.

Support for a carbon tax is only lukewarm among some Democrats because it does expose the party to the charge of adding another significant tax in what could be a difficult election year. In short, as far as sensible long-term policy goes, we are back where almost all needed but politically risky legislation seems to be – stuck.

The country is willing to pour whatever resources are needed into the cleanup of this spill – particularly if BP is paying.

However, we are not able to muster the political will to address the problem of America's oil dependency.

Perhaps the good news here came to me in the form of a black button sent by an environmental advocacy group. The button says simply "October 2047." This is the date when the world's supply of oil finally runs out. We will need a solution then.