Carbon Taxes for Skeptics

by Lorna Salzman

Those who question or oppose carbon taxes seem to have the notion that these taxes are the only way to reduce CO2 emissions, rather than part of a broad package of disincentives, incentives, regulations, policies and other other words part of a broad plan that seeks to primarily reduce oil consumption drastically and rapidly but in a context of a sound, equitable and sustainable energy policy. To paraphrase John Muir, you dont do just one thing.

There are lots of inequities and tax burdens that affect the poor. This is a broad societal problem that we are all grappling with, and it involves more than just taxes; after all, there are income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, etc. which are inequitablel and penalize the poor more than the affluent. There are lots of things the poor cant buy: McMansions, expensive SUVS, diamonds, private schools...and even nonluxuries like proper medical care. So we need to rephrase the problem and therefore rephrase our questions.

The question isnt: how can we enable the poor to afford unlimited gasoline? Or how can we redistribute wealth so they can consume as much as the rich? Or how can we assure the same level of affluence in this country for everyone ? Or how can we bring the poor of the rest of the world up to the US standard of living and consumption? Well, we cant. Let's be clear on that.

Some people say the answer is socialism. Some say it is the "free market" or libertarianism. Some say it is benevolent capitalism with trickle-down economics. Some say it is revolution. Some say it is by letting the poor die of sickness and starvation so there are fewer of them. Some say it is by stopping immigration. Etc, etc. The problem is that none of those who propose these solutions are asking the right questions. You dont get the right answer unless you ask the right questions.

Before you ask new questions, though, you have to look at our present system: global capitalism based on untrammeled growth in resource extraction, production, consumption and waste. If any Green thinks that this system can continue without consequences - that is, environmental, economic and social consequences - then he/she is in the wrong party. It is the Republicrats, neo-cons, neo-liberals,international financial institutions and corporations who think that way...or at least publicly say so. Even some on the left think so. Privately though, it is another story. The Pentagon global warming report, and the studies by Swiss Re and other re-insurance companies in Europe show that there are huge growing doubts. Starting in 1972 the Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome said it first, and they were ridiculed and called enemies of the poor. But everything they predicted, as did The Ecologist's Blueprint for Survival, is now taking place. And worst of all we have hardly any time left.

We can argue from now until doomsday - which will come sooner than we think -about what is the fastest, cheapest and fairest way to mitigate global warming. But we dont need more research; that is what the Bushites and capitalists and corporations keep saying, while whistling in the dark. There is no argument that the availability of Cheap Oil is doing us all in. No argument, folks. That is what global warming is about: burning too much fossil fuel.

The question that follows is therefore: how can we curb our appetite for fossil fuel? The next question is: who consumes most of the oil? (since logically you start with the big users). The biggest user, without question, is the US transportation sector: 60% of our total oil consumption. Power plants consume at most half of that. Domestic uses are way down at the tbottom. is private cars and trucks.

What is the fastest way to reduce oil consumption? I am saying fastest because we have so little time. If time were not an issue, we could discuss rationing or other piddling at the margin strategies like driving cars on alternate days or building more fuel efficient cars or turning down our thermostats or building public transport to replace cars, higher tolls and fees on highways, bridges, parking lots and garages, prohibiting cars in urban areas, etc, etc. The list is endless. We should do these anyway but they are not a fast solution.

But this will require thousands of individual actions, regulation, enforcement, authorization and allocation of city, state and federal funds, infrastructure changes, education, and all the other institutional, legal , administrative and other mechanisms involving numerous government agencies, technical and engineering consultants, intergovernmental planning. In other words,maximum bureaucracy, which means lots and lots of time, which we dont have.Furthermore, none of these individually or collectively provide the public with the proper signal aboutthe global warming crisis. They come off mainly as just good environmental planning for the long term. We need something to stop oil consumption in the immediate term, to the maximum feasible extent. And we need to do it for the right reason.

Taxes are the answer, by a long lead. The price at the gas pump tells consumers oil is no longer cheap, and they immediately use less, to the extent they can. And of course they can then demand cheap efficient convenient public transport. Taxes get paid into one central fund (and it must be federal). You need just one agency to oversee tax collection, and you need one other - preferably under congressional oversight - to allocate the revenues.

Already there are different opinions on how these should be spent. States want money to make up for their budget cuts. Social service groups and agencies want money they have lost. Community groups and unions want it for education, health care, housing. Some want it to replace sales taxes or property taxes. I and other environmentalists believe that, initially at least, the revenues should go towards other carbon-reducing activities like weatherization, renewable energy, public transportation, co-generation, etc. As revenues grow, the beneficiaries can be expanded.

The point of carbon taxes is that while everyone pays more - and obviously large rich users pay the most as they should since the poor consume less oil - the revenues can be used to REDUCE the cost of living for the poor by providing, in the short and long term, cheap or free medical care, solar panels, weatherization, education, cheap or free public transit, and other things that their low income does not permit. In this way they will be compensated several times over for having to pay a couple of bucks more for gasoline - especially since they use their cars less frequently and dont have SUVs. So the poor BENEFIT from carbon taxes. And blue collar workers can be retrained for the new renewable energy/public transportation infrastructure that will be needed...that is needed already. More jobs, at the community level. Low-tech jobs, not Silicon Valley or information technology. Jobs that workers already are qualified to fill.

This country's low cost energy and food have not only precluded renewable energy and sound agriculture but have been achieved on the backs of the poor of other countries. Anyone who has read about "free trade", NAFTA, WTO, recognizes this instantly. Mexican farmers are out of jobs, to help US farmers, with their vast subsidies, make money. So even the poor in the US are benefitting from the exploitation of the poor abroad.

The poor dont need more oil or energy. They need a decent income and they need services that they arent getting. They need lower income taxes, no sales taxes and better wages. These are the things the poor need and arent getting. What better way than to tax the affluent car-dependent middle and upper classes and make them pay for these services? If the government wont pay for these services, then we should make the rich pay. Hey, distributive justice! Redistribution of wealth. Sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

Why those who oppose carbon taxes dont understand this puzzles me. Maybe they just havent given serious thought to a comprehensive energy policy. We arent talking only about environment. We are talking about Social Justice here. Of all the topics today, global warming is the one most affecting social justice, because it is the poor nations of the world who will suffer the consequences most drastically. And the response of the US, to protect its citlzens' consumption patterns and privileges, is likely to be even more authoritarian than what it is doing in Iraq and elsewhere.

If we greens and progressives dont get serious about global warming, we will never have another chance. And our political efforts to achieve social justice will fall by the wayside, as they become utterly inconsequential compared to the dire health and ecological consequences of global warming. We have maybe 30 years if we are lucky.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.