Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change,” climatologist Dr. James Hansen; and others advocate a “revenue-neutral” tax on carbon to remedy global warming. This misguided notion deserves some critical review.
Such a revenue-neutral tax scheme will plainly not work to remedy global warming and will substantially sustain the status quo: favor the rich, burden the poor and only mildly affect carbon dioxide emissions while diverting revenues away from creating substitute sources of energy and transforming our vehicular and electrical infrastructure.
“A revenue-neutral tax” is, inter alia, a code phrase invented to package reduced tax rates for the wealthiest corporate and individual interests with a shift of the tax burden to the consuming public. It’s akin to a universal sales tax, but with an environmental wrapper.
It is clear that at least Elizabeth Kolbert and Dr. James Hansen view global warming due to adding greenhouse gases to Earth’s atmosphere as a danger without peer. On that we agree.
Global warming is an unstoppable process that runs entirely on its own once greenhouse gases, such as combustion byproducts from burning carbon-based fossil fuels, are released to the atmosphere. For this reason, its effects can be reduced only by early prevention, because once enough long-lived greenhouse gases are released, it’s too late.
Past delays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions have brought us up to, or possibly past, the point at which any amount of intervention, reductions or gnashing of teeth will prevent increasing death and destruction. That is the awful, ruthlessly enforced price of delay.
Now we are merely dancing around the question of global warming’s “level of badness,” not if circumstances will be bad.
As an aside, in the delightful Disney children’s movie, “Lilo and Stitch,” the child, Lilo, points to her outline drawing of her pet dog, Stitch, filled in fully to above his eyes with red crayon, and says sweetly: “This is your badness level. It’s unusually high for someone your size.”
While Stitch, an alien genetically designed for raw and unbridled destructiveness, responds to and is eventually tamed by a need for family provided by Lilo, global warming will not similarly yield, regardless of our best intentions, hopes or dreams.
Only focused, pragmatic and massive physical changes in our energy and transportation systems provide us even a gambling chance of avoiding the unthinkable.
Kolbert’s New Yorker comment offers that a 10 percent to 13 percent reduction in emissions will occur if a revenue-neutral tax on carbon is instituted. This is a pittance compared with what is needed, even as it provides window-dressing for “action.”
Such a tax will almost certainly not result in efficient construction of new transportation and energy systems, because the revenues will be directed at offsetting losses in tax revenue to governments experiencing reduced taxes, mainly for the wealthiest. That is precisely what “revenue-neutral” will mean!
Not only does this approach regressively shift the tax burden to individual consumers, including the poorest among us, but it will also perforce invest governments in sustaining the status quo use of carbon-based fossil fuels in order to meet critical governmental operational and tax-base needs. Nobody in government is going to vote or act to reduce revenue derived from burning carbon if it reduces revenue for their pet project or cause!
In the meantime, taxes on the middle class and poor will by design necessarily rise, no matter where they technically are collected.
Moreover, such a tax will serve as an irresistible excuse to artificially raise prices, and with rising prices on fuel, food, housing, and all the rest, Republicans will be politically empowered with a brutal cudgel in the form of a “tax on carbon.”
Thus, private industries — think oil, natural gas, coal, plastics, and everything made with same — will have an opportunity to raise prices while hiding behind a “job-killing, Democratic tax on carbon” as the principal cause.
Politically, Democrats will be endlessly pilloried, changing the face of politics and eliminating further action on global warming. There will never be political relief because, unfortunately, the tiny benefits, if any, of a revenue-neutral tax will not immediately or appreciably remedy anything.
The greatest beneficiaries will be the wealthiest individuals and industries with reduced tax rates, as has occurred many times over the past 30 years.
It’s time for the wealthiest to play a much larger role in directly solving the problem posed by global warming, rather than shifting the burden to the poor and middle class via a revenue-neutral tax scheme.
If we are going to tax to address global warming, it should be on the wealthiest in order to motivate their urge to increase expenditures and investments in transportation and energy systems which do not emit greenhouse gases. That is a real remedy.
Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.