“Carbon and other greenhouse gases should be taxed at a rate high enough to spur the transition away from fossil fuels consistent with the temperature goals agreed to in Paris in 2015.”
That’s the carbon tax resolution that environmental activist Bill McKibben pressed the Democratic Party Platform Drafting Committee to adopt at its meeting in St. Louis last week. The proposal lost 7-6, as did allied resolutions opposing fracking and investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Still, the vote is the latest step by carbon taxing on its march into the political mainstream.
Befitting McKibben’s gift for concision, the resolution was scarcely longer than a tweet. But it spoke volumes: carbon emissions must be taxed; ditto, other greenhouse gases like methane; and the tax must be high enough to catalyze an energy revolution. Note also what the resolution did not say: that carbon should be “priced,” an expression that, though useful in its place, can be a weasel word allowing for cap-and-trade schemes. No, the proposal specified a carbon tax, straight up and robust.
Two Congressmembers on the panel were equally unambiguous:
- “Taxing carbon is the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions. It will offset the massive societal cost of unchecked carbon emissions.” — Barbara Lee, California 13th CD
- “This is a very market-y proposal. Companies aren’t internalizing all their costs, they’re externalizing them onto the rest of us. Shouldn’t they be responsible for covering the cost they impose on us? I think yes.” — Keith Ellison, Minnesota 5th CD
Those are pretty sophisticated arguments. Less so was this objection from Hillary Clinton surrogate Carol Browner:
The concern we have about a carbon tax is that it won’t necessarily achieve reductions. It will generate revenue, but it won’t necessarily achieve reductions because some companies will simply pay the cost. And what we want, and what we think is absolutely essential, is measurable reductions of carbon pollution in the air.
If it’s measurable reductions Browner wanted, she could have cast her eye at British Columbia, where a “starter” carbon tax of just $20 per ton of CO2 cut emissions in its first four years, although those cuts have stalled out, predictably enough, as the tax level stopped rising.
And anyone with a basic grounding in economic policy analysis will see right through Browner’s argument. Those hypothetical “companies [that] will simply pay the cost” of high-carbon energy won’t be around for long; they’ll be supplanted by enterprises that can provide electricity, manufacturing and transport more cheaply because they’ve heeded the carbon price signal and switched from dirty energy to untaxed clean fuels and efficiency. Households and businesses will also adopt sustainable practices that gain cost-effectiveness as the carbon tax takes hold.
Read our follow-up post, Time for Climate Advocates to Move Beyond the Clean Power Plan.
Bizarrely, Browner based her canard about carbon taxes — that they generate revenue rather than cutting carbon — in part on the failure of California’s cap-and-trade system. Presumably, Browner, a prime Democratic Party environmental apparatchik for over two decades, knows better. One can only imagine McKibben’s frustration as he saw carbon taxes tarred with the cap-and-trade brush.
Needless to say, Bill isn’t backing down, as he made clear in his post-mortem in Politico calling out the Clinton campaign for “obstructing change” by locking up the Democratic Party platform. While we’re sad that the carbon tax resolution didn’t pass, we’re pleased that McKibben not only drafted but fought hard for it.
Carbon tax proponents have long seen the logic in having Bill advocate for carbon taxes. Taxing carbon pollution jibes perfectly with the agenda of 350.org, the organization he has built into a formidable global grassroots force. No other policy tool both undermines the profitability of the fossil fuel industry and also leverages divestment (financially and culturally) from that sector.
McKibben’s leadership for carbon taxing in St. Louis — and, hopefully, beyond — is both heartening and important.
To View the Platform Committee Debate: The entire (10-hour) debate is on YouTube. McKibben’s opening argument starts at 5:39:20. Barbara Lee’s remarks begin at 5:45:25 and Keith Ellison’s at 5:45:50. Carol Browner’s objections begin at 5:47:30.
Analee Graig, an undergrad at SUNY-Binghamton, contributed reporting to this post.
Thad Curtz says
Browner’s argument isn’t silly, though she migt have made it more clearly. With a carbon tax, you know what the price per ton of emissions is going to be; you do not know what actual reductions you’re going to get at that price level. (With a cap, on the other hand, you can specify what you will allow – which is what Browner wanted – but you don’t know how much a ton it will cost businesses to get to that level…)
(And it isn’t true, as Komanoff says, that companies that just pay the tax will necessarily be uncompetitive – maybe it will be cheaper for them to pay the tax than to make the next level of reductions, and maybe actually spending the money to make the next level of reductions would make them less competitive, given some current tax level.
The kicker in here is that McKibben’s amendment proposed a carbon tax “high enough” to keep us under 2 degrees, and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible. You can get any amount of reductions you want if you’re willing to make the tax “high enough”, but you might not like the other consequences…
Unfortunately, a revenue neutral carbon tax, like the one the initiative I’m volunteering to help try to pass in Washington State this November (I-732), wasn’t part of the 8 minutes of public discussion.
I think it’s actually quite interesting to spend ten minutes watching them talk about this stuff, and it’s pretty easy to just find the right place in the YouTube video using the times Komanoff thoughtfully provides.
Ramin Rezakhanlou says
It’s so simple and logical. Well done to you all thank you for informing me. I personally have gone near 90% solar energy at home, and I plant trees for each flight I have to take for atmospheric recovery and I make and drive a solar vehicle. The pieces have been set in motion keep up the momentum. We are behind you.
Robert (Sid) Madison says
Comments on the article/platform resolutions:
Kudos Bill McKibben for including “other greenhouse gases.” Something like 40% of GHG are not carbon based.
One wonders if the implicit or assumed needed increasing level of tax needed to be stated so that the legislative process can’t miss this point. Starting too high has the potential to shock the economy so clearly the tax must increase over time.
The Browner argument points to cap & trade. Economists I have talked with claim that either cap & trade or a carbon tax can solve the problem IF implemented properly. IMO, a carbon tax falls under the KISS principle from both political and economic standpoints.
Missing from the discussion is the goal of keeping lower income households from being impacted by increasing energy cost cascading through the economy. One assumes, apparently incorrectly, that the “progressive” Democrat party would jump on this need. This progressive goal is relatively simple to implement by a revenue-neutral tax returned to equally households. For details on such a proposal, go to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby web site.
Lastly, an argument against any form of carbon pricing is that the United States will put itself at a competitive disadvantage. To deal with this political stumbling block, a border adjustment component should be part of the process. This is after all, a political rather than climate or economic situation.
Melody Fleck says
Why the misleading title on this article? Dem platform committee voted McKibben’s carbon tax amendment DOWN. Good article tho..
Drew Keeling says
McKibben and Sanders did not win, but they at least tried
Drew Keeling says
The difficulty with a carbon tax is that advocating it requires real political leadership and not politically opportunistic bureaucratic pretense of leadership. The Clintons tried for a BTU tax in 1993; it failed and that ball has been left dropped ever since. Al Gore has for even longer helped publicize knowledge and concern about climate change, yet as US Vice President was unable to successfully push through effective national policies to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Even 350.org has spent most of the seven odd years of its existence agitating for almost anything other than the sort of direct, firm, concrete and comprehensive policy changes which a revenue neutral carbon tax could achieve.
In contrast, Bernie Sanders has this year helped give efforts to enact a revenue neutral carbon tax approach a much needed nationally recognized boost. Yet, while this is a welcome national-level political start, it is still a long, long way from a real “win.”
The physics, chemistry and economics of anthropogenic global climate change mean that it poses a very long term set of challenges. However, while the free-rider and intergenerational-transfer aspects of it pose formidable barriers, there is no natural law requiring that political will to decisively confront those climate and energy use challenges (and to respond with bold efforts at actually achieving the essential, substantive, tangible, broad, and sustained shift away from carbon fuels which a solid revenue neutral tax could seriously help accomplish) should also take a very long (and historic opportunity-wasting) time to occur. But, the inertia of political denial and pretense is a very deeply rooted contemporary reality.
The best chance for genuine progress to ultimately result, from the recent 7-6 platform committee defeat, would probably be if it were to help lead to a much better public awareness of how reflexively afraid the Democratic Party establishment has been of daring to really work for a policy approach embraced by economists for decades, endorsed by oil companies for many years, and publicly advocated by the recently most dynamic, progressive-friendly and real-policy-oriented major national politician in America. Simply acknowledging basic science (which, by the way, the Republican Party establishment has been incapable of doing for years now) is nowhere near enough.
peter joseph says
Given the dysfunctional political environment in Congress, one might be grateful that the Dems didn’t adopt a carbon tax plank. Doing so would instantly align Republicans against it. Hopefully they’ll go first, then the Dems can join in.
Peter Kalmus says
Kudos to Bill for taking the next step on bringing carbon tax into the political mainstream. However, I do think omitting revenue neutrality (as advocated for by Citizens’ Climate Lobby) was a mistake, and I wonder why he omitted it. Revenue neutrality turns a carbon tax which drags down the economy into a carbon fee which actually boosts the economy. The BC revenue neutral “tax” and detailed model studies both show this, and it makes intuitive sense. The downside is that politicians don’t get to use revenues for pork (i.e. revenues could be used to “bribe” policymakers to support the bill) but I think that’s a minor downside compared to the upside.