How Do You Pay for the War, Daddy?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Today is Pearl Harbor Day. After the 1941 sneak attack by Japan America went to war, selling bonds to pay for it, paying off those bonds over time.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we were attacked again. We went to war. But we still have that war on our credit card. There has been no victory parade because we're still in Afghanistan. Even though it remains the elephant in the room when it comes to our national debt, no one is seriously talking about paying for it.

Currently, an "Iraq Cost Clock" puts the number at $827 billion, and climbing. Add in the cost of Afghanistan and you're talking over $1.4 trillion on the credit card.

That's why even conservatives like David Frum, writing at CNN, are now warming up to the idea of a "Carbon Tax." The New Yorker compares it to taxing alcohol or cigarettes, a "Pigouvian" tax (named for British economist Arthur Pigou) that recoups the unmet costs of a financial transaction.

The most important unmet cost of energy is global warming. After years of denialism, Hurricane Sandy brought this cost to Wall Street's door, or a down payment on it. California is already experimenting with a cap and trade system that goes into effect in January and is explained with charts by the Contra Costa Times.

A recent MIT study said a federal tax of $20/ton on carbon, rising at 4% per year, would raise $1.5 trillion over 10 years. I can get most of two wars for that.

What would a carbon tax mean for investors? Obviously you would sell coal and buy renewables, and favor natural gas over oil. General Electric ( GE) just put an 18-month hold on a solar panel plant in Colorado, writes The Denver Post but still thinks solar energy will reach the same price as grid energy by 2016, according to Clean Technica..

That's without a carbon tax. With one, we might get there next year, and Aurora, Colo., might get a $300 million GE manufacturing plant.

This may be the most compelling argument for a carbon tax. If it's cheaper to put a solar panel on your home than buy electricity from the grid, you're going to do it. Hawaii has already passed grid parity, writes Solar Power World, leading to some fascinating political fights it might be fun to have in the rest of the country.

Solar stocks like First Solar ( FSLR) were getting beaten down throughout 2011 and early 2012, but since hitting a low of about $12/share in June (from a high of $168/share) FSLR has rebounded to a price of over $30/share. The recovery has yet to hit the main solar ETFs -- KWT ( KWT) and TAN ( TAN) -- which are still bouncing near those June levels.

KWT currently has 13% of its valuation in FSLR while it's the second-largest holding in TAN. TAN is slightly more diversified, being in money-losing solar wafer maker MEMC ( WFR). Both hold a lot of shares in Chinese companies that are being beaten down for reasons outside the industry.

So while a carbon tax would be tough to design and hard to pass, it would (unlike many other taxes) provide some interesting investment opportunities. I wouldn't sell my oil and gas stocks with a carbon tax -- demand for energy continues to rise -- but I wouldn't run for the hills, either.

Speculation is starting to rise about President Obama's next State of the Union address. He has said, once or twice, that in his second term he wants to address the problem of climate change. He has also said he wants to cut our deficits. I fully expect a proposal for a carbon tax, and you shouldn't be gobsmacked if one comes.

Maybe we can finally start to pay for two of the longest wars in American history. Maybe we can keep your grandchildren from living on a planet that's hotter than Hades. And maybe we can make some money along the way.

At the time of publication the author had a position in GE.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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