This summer, a friend sent me a remarkable headline from The Seattle Times: “ ‘Green’ Alliance Opposes Petition to Tax Carbon.”
My initial thought was that this doesn’t make sense. It is like reading “Democrats Rally to Cut the Minimum Wage” or “Republicans Unite to Hike Income Taxes.”
But the political debate in Washington State is a case study about why smart environmental policy is so hard to enact.
First, some background.
Scientists have been telling us for years that the earth is warming and that one of the culprits is human emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Some believe that global warming has contributed to the current severe drought in California.
Sure, there are skeptics about the climate science behind these claims. But science is always a matter of probabilities, not certainties. Even a reasonable skeptic should be willing to embrace modest steps to curb carbon emissions.
Policy wonks like me have long argued that the best way to curb carbon emissions is to put a price on carbon. The cap-and-trade system President Obama advocates is one way to do that. A more direct and less bureaucratic way is to tax carbon. When polled, economists overwhelmingly support the idea.
One reason is that putting a price on carbon alters incentives in many ways. It encourages utilities to switch to cleaner forms of generating electricity, like wind and solar instead of coal. It encourages people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, form car pools with their neighbors, use more public transportation, live closer to work and turn down their thermostats. A regulatory system that tried to achieve all this would be heavy-handed and less effective.
Motivated by this thinking, Washington Carbon, an advocacy group in the state, is now trying to put a carbon tax on the 2016 ballot. Initiative Measure 732 would institute a tax on fossil fuels of $25 a metric ton of carbon dioxide (which translates to about 25 cents a gallon of gasoline).
Most of the revenue from the measure would be used to reduce the state sales tax by one percentage point. A smaller amount would be used to reduce taxes on manufacturing companies and to fund a tax rebate of up to $1,500 for low-income working families. The overall plan is progressive and revenue-neutral. If passed, the initiative would yield a tax shift, not a tax increase.
That is why some environmentalists are opposed. Rather than rebating the money the carbon tax would raise, they want to spend it on environmental and other government programs.
To be sure, a person can favor both a more environmentally friendly tax policy and greater government spending. But there is no good reason to marry these policies. If the goal is to build a political consensus to tackle climate change, there is good reason not to.
The size of government is an issue that divides the political right and the political left, and it will most likely always do so. The same need not be true of climate change.
Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina, heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University A recent winner of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which is given to public officials, he has been pushing for climate change solutions that are consistent with free enterprise and limited government.
Environmentalists in the United States would do well to look north at the successes achieved in a Canadian province. In 2008, British Columbia introduced a revenue-neutral carbon tax similar to that being proposed for Washington.
The results of the policy have been what advocates promised. The use of fossil fuels in British Columbia has fallen compared with the rest of Canada. But economic growth has not suffered.
What is most noteworthy, however, is that the policy was championed by a right-of-center government that did not previously have close ties to the environmental movement.
It was a Nixon-goes-to-China moment: Gordon Campbell, British Columbia’s premier, had more credibility by acting against type. Because of the government’s conservative credentials and its commitment to make the policy revenue-neutral, it brought along the crucial support of the business community.
Could such a situation happen in the United States? Right now, it is hard to imagine, as many of the Republicans vying for the presidential nomination pander to the deniers of climate change. But the experience of British Columbia suggests that this attitude could change.
This brings me back to my friend, Yoram Bauman, who sent me that headline. He is an environmental economist and stand-up comedian (yes, an unusual combo). He is also one of the leaders of the effort in Washington State to pass a carbon tax. He has been working tirelessly to build support.
Based on his experiences, he has a message for environmental activists: “I am increasingly convinced that the path to climate action is through the Republican Party. Yes, there are challenges on the right — skepticism about climate science and about tax reform — but those are surmountable with time and effort. The same cannot be said of the challenges on the left: an unyielding desire to tie everything to bigger government, and a willingness to use race and class as political weapons in order to pursue that desire.”
Yoram Bauman is a funny guy, but this time he is not joking.
IN the debate over global climate change, there is a yawning gap that needs to be bridged. The gap is not between environmentalists and industrialists, or between Democrats and Republicans. It is between policy wonks and political consultants.
Among policy wonks like me, there is a broad consensus. The scientists tell us that world temperatures are rising because humans are emitting carbon into the atmosphere. Basic economics tells us that when you tax something, you normally get less of it. So if we want to reduce global emissions of carbon, we need a global carbon tax. Q.E.D.
The idea of using taxes to fix problems, rather than merely raise government revenue, has a long history. The British economist Arthur Pigou advocated such corrective taxes to deal with pollution in the early 20th century. In his honor, economics textbooks now call them “Pigovian taxes.”
Using a Pigovian tax to address global warming is also an old idea. It was proposed as far back as 1992 by Martin S. Feldstein on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Once chief economist to Ronald Reagan, Mr. Feldstein has devoted much of his career to studying how high tax rates distort incentives and impede economic growth. But like most other policy wonks, he appreciates that some taxes align private incentives with social costs and move us toward better outcomes.
Those vying for elected office, however, are reluctant to sign on to this agenda. Their political consultants are no fans of taxes, Pigovian or otherwise. Republican consultants advise using the word “tax” only if followed immediately by the word “cut.” Democratic consultants recommend the word “tax” be followed by “on the rich.”
Yet this natural aversion to carbon taxes can be overcome if the revenue from the tax is used to reduce other taxes. By itself, a carbon tax would raise the tax burden on anyone who drives a car or uses electricity produced with fossil fuels, which means just about everybody. Some might fear this would be particularly hard on the poor and middle class.
But Gilbert Metcalf, a professor of economics at Tufts, has shown how revenue from a carbon tax could be used to reduce payroll taxes in a way that would leave the distribution of total tax burden approximately unchanged. He proposes a tax of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, together with a rebate of the federal payroll tax on the first $3,660 of earnings for each worker.
The case for a carbon tax looks even stronger after an examination of the other options on the table. Lawmakers in both political parties want to require carmakers to increase the fuel efficiency of the cars they sell. Passing the buck to auto companies has a lot of popular appeal.
Increased fuel efficiency, however, is not free. Like a tax, the cost of complying with more stringent regulation will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher car prices. But the government will not raise any revenue that it can use to cut other taxes to compensate for these higher prices. (And don’t expect savings on gas to compensate consumers in a meaningful way: Any truly cost-effective increase in fuel efficiency would already have been made.)
More important, enhancing fuel efficiency by itself is not the best way to reduce energy consumption. Fuel use depends not only on the efficiency of the car fleet but also on the daily decisions that people make — how far from work they choose to live and how often they carpool or use public transportation.
A carbon tax would provide incentives for people to use less fuel in a multitude of ways. By contrast, merely having more efficient cars encourages more driving. Increased driving not only produces more carbon, but also exacerbates other problems, like accidents and road congestion.
Another popular proposal to limit carbon emissions is a cap-and-trade system, under which carbon emissions are limited and allowances are bought and sold in the marketplace. The effect of such a system depends on how the carbon allowances are allocated. If the government auctions them off, then the price of a carbon allowance is effectively a carbon tax.
But the history of cap-and-trade systems suggests that the allowances would probably be handed out to power companies and other carbon emitters, which would then be free to use them or sell them at market prices. In this case, the prices of energy products would rise as they would under a carbon tax, but the government would collect no revenue to reduce other taxes and compensate consumers.
The international dimension of the problem also suggests the superiority of a carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Any long-term approach to global climate change will have to deal with the emerging economies of China and India. By some reports, China is now the world’s leading emitter of carbon, in large part simply because it has so many people. The failure of the Kyoto treaty to include these emerging economies is one reason that, in 1997, the United States Senate passed a resolution rejecting the Kyoto approach by a vote of 95 to zero.
Agreement on a truly global cap-and-trade system, however, is hard to imagine. China is unlikely to be persuaded to accept fewer carbon allowances per person than the United States. Using a historical baseline to allocate allowances, as is often proposed, would reward the United States for having been a leading cause of the problem.
But allocating carbon allowances based on population alone would create a system in which the United States, with its higher standard of living, would buy allowances from China. American voters are not going to embrace a system of higher energy prices, coupled with a large transfer of national income to the Chinese. It would amount to a massive foreign aid program to one of the world’s most rapidly growing economies.
A global carbon tax would be easier to negotiate. All governments require revenue for public purposes. The world’s nations could agree to use a carbon tax as one instrument to raise some of that revenue. No money needs to change hands across national borders. Each government could keep the revenue from its tax and use it to finance spending or whatever form of tax relief it considered best.
Convincing China of the virtues of a carbon tax, however, may prove to be the easy part. The first and more difficult step is to convince American voters, and therefore political consultants, that “tax” is not a four-letter word.