These progressives argue that simply charging a tax on those who emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases would be too little, too late given the amount of greenhouse gases humans have put into the atmosphere.
“Carbon tax is often treated as a magic bullet,” said Nicole Ghio, the fossil fuels program manager at the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “It’s unrealistic to expect a carbon tax on its own to solve the climate crisis.”
Other environmentalists have begun treating any pricing-carbon plan with outright hostility. More than two dozen far-left green groups, led by the Food & Water Watch, wrote a letter to House Democrats last year deriding a carbon tax as a “license to pollute.”
Their worry is that the burden of paying such a tax would be borne by the poor not only through higher prices for food and fuel, but by proximity to polluters that tend to build refineries and other facilities near low-income and minority neighborhoods.
“Carbon pricing and other market mechanisms,” the left-wing groups write, “rely on market forces that have already delivered a substantial and disparate toxic burden faced by socially and economically disadvantaged communities.”
In response, some carbon-tax proponents in Congress acknowledge that a such tax policy ought to be a piece of a bigger climate package.
“There is no silver bullet,” said Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who recently introduced his own carbon-tax proposal, “but there is a silver buckshot.”
Notably, any mention of carbon pricing was missing from the Green New Deal resolution introduced this year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). That plan called for a rapid economic transition away from the use of fossil fuels in the power and transportation sectors.
But a number of economists argue that a carbon tax, or something similar, is the most economically efficient way of spurring companies to invest in low-carbon technology and, if designed correctly, spurring foreign nations to rein in their own emissions. Such pricing mechanisms have a track record of success when it comes to reducing other forms of pollution, such as those that form acid rain.
In a January letter published in the Wall Street Journal, 45 leading economists, including former Federal Reserve chairs Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Janet L. Yellen, called it “the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.”
Placing a price on carbon can take several forms. Under a carbon tax, sometimes given the friendlier moniker of a carbon “fee,” polluters pay the government a certain price for each pound of carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere. Depending on the plan, the revenue raised is used either to fund government programs or simply is sent back directly to taxpayers.
Former secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz, for example, have suggested putting in place a $40-per-ton tax of carbon dioxide, with the revenue sent back to taxpayers, in exchange for cutting regulations and limiting lawsuits attempting to hold oil companies liable for damages caused by climate change.
Alternatively, under a cap-and-trade plan, such as the one congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama tried and failed to institute in 2009, regulators set up a market where companies can buy and sell credits permitting them to release carbon into the atmosphere.
Animating some of the ambivalence toward a carbon tax is the support it has garnered from a few oil majors, such as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, which each back the Baker-Shultz plan put forward in 2017.
There is also some skepticism among left-wing activists about letting a market solve climate change when, as they see it, manipulatable markets — such as those for fossil fuels — helped create the problem in the first place.
Arun Majumdar, the former head of Obama’s energy technology incubator at the Energy Department, considers himself a fan of the Baker-Shultz plan. But he too warns that there are some corners of the economy into which the carbon tax cannot reach.
A price on carbon does not do much to incentivize the owners of rental apartments, for example, to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings if tenants are paying their own utility bills.
If such a landlord made some improvement, like installing more efficient air conditioners, he would be saving money for his renters — not himself.
“Let’s not forget when markets don’t work,” Majumdar said.
There is also the even more critical issue of the ticking climate clock. A major report last year from a panel of U.N. scientists said that the world’s nations have just a bit more than a decade to hold global warming to moderate levels.
Activists alarmed by that report, such as those with organizations like the Sunrise Movement, which backs the Green New Deal, consider instituting a carbon tax by itself to be insufficient.
“If we had implemented a system like that in 1988,” said Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash, “maybe we’d be in a completely different situation right now.”
She added that although she could support including a carbon tax as part of a broader climate package, “it is just completely unviable to say that that kind of policy is going to be our silver-bullet solution.”
Implementing such a change to the tax code can be politically explosive, too. Protests erupted in France last year over a plan to raise already high taxes on diesel and gasoline in an effort to wean motorists off petroleum products.
Less dramatically, residents of reliably liberal Washington twice rejected a ballot measure that would have made the state the first in the country to tax carbon emissions.
Since the latest defeat of that ballot question in November, Washington’s biggest carbon-tax proponent, Gov. Jay Inslee (D), has moved on. In April, he successfully pressed the state legislature to pass a bill phasing the state away from fossil-fuel-generated electricity through legal mandates on electric utilities rather than any change to the tax code.
“We made a very good, strategic, sound and smart decision to pursue what will work,” Inslee, who is running for president on a platform to fight climate change, said in an interview this year.
Despite all that agitation, the idea of a carbon tax has only gained popularity in recent years in the other Washington. This year, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) joined with more than 30 Democrats to introduce carbon-fee legislation that they projected would cut greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by the middle of the century.
And Schatz and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) found two new Democratic co-sponsors for their carbon-fee proposal — Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — when they reintroduced it in April.
“If you're at all worried about the future that your kids and your grandkids are inheriting,” Heinrich said, “I think this has to be in the mix.”
At the same time, all this hand-wringing over a carbon tax is happening while Republicans have firm control of the Senate, forestalling any possibility of passing most climate-related legislation.
“It's a weird debate,” Schatz said.
Listing off emission-reduction ideas floating around Capitol Hill, such as expanding nuclear energy, extending renewable-energy tax breaks and tightening energy-efficiency standards, he added: “We literally have to do all of those things.”
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