At long last, Congress is showing a willingness to confront global warming. The Senate’s recent approval of higher fuel economy standards is a constructive step and key lawmakers are promising comprehensive legislation this year that will, for the first time, limit the emission of greenhouse gases. But for all the talk about warming, leading politicians have yet to educate their constituents (and their colleagues) about an unpleasant and inescapable truth: any serious effort to fight global warming will require everyone to pay more for energy. According to most scientists, the long-term costs of doing nothing — flooding, famine, and drought — would be even higher than the costs of acting now. But unless Americans understand and accept the trade-off, the requisite public support for real change is unlikely to build.

Over a decade ago, the Clinton administration floated the idea of a tax on the carbon content of various fuels, like coal and oil. The revenue could be used, in part, to subsidise the higher energy costs for low-income Americans. But the idea went nowhere, and new taxes remain a political non-starter. We are now using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon emissions. Unless we — industry and consumers — are made to pay a significant price for doing so, we will never get anywhere.