why you can’t tax your way to a greener world

Carbon taxes may prompt companies and people to switch to cleaner. But incentives, rather than punishments, may be a better approach.
industry vs nature chess
Illustration by Greenpeace

Regardless of what the numerous global warming deniers have been spouting in the comments here (they tend to go for the comments as soon as they spot the keywords at which to rage), I’ve always said that carbon taxes and credits was a terrible way to deal with climate change. At best, it would give companies an excuse to pollute and has inspired a few outfits to make a quick million or ten by greenwashing, i.e. investing the carbon offset credits paid to them in existing green projects rather than new ones. At worst, it funds vehement think tanks who deny the science and muddle the issues to protect their interests rather than waste their money on taxes and greenwashing. For example, last time I was in D.C., I went to the Koch-sponsored hall of human history, and while the science there did portray an accurate view of evolutionary biology, every damn placard sang praises to climate change as the key driver of human evolution and intelligence. Subtle and well thought out, are not the words you’d use to describe this particular bit of propaganda.

And there are even more problems with carbon credits. Yes, one can use taxes and incentives in the classic carrot and stick combination, but the problem with a “vice tax” is that the money it generates very quickly becomes more important than the actual cause, especially when the money is slated to go to a specific industry. This arrangement creates a kind of perverse symbiosis between those taxed for the vice and those who rely on the vice’s continuation to exist. But this shouldn’t apply to any green companies, should it? Wouldn’t they grow to supply the massive regional utilities and come totally independent? Well that’s the hope, but the reality is that the fossil fuel industry has more than a century on them, tried and true technology, low costs, and bountiful subsidies. Under a carbon tax arrangement, green utilities would have to live off the fees and penalties of fossil fuels.

Now you can see the source of the complaints that global warming is a scam to raise taxes, with an unsettling number of people on the far right fringe declaring the science to be a veil for a sinister UN-led New World Order conspiracy to strip them of their rights and property. Certainly, the cause is just because we do need a comfortable, clean world in which to live, and cranking up the temperature will cause more storms, more severe droughts, and more disease outbreaks. But unfortunately, the groups who want the most and best intentioned change have done an exceedingly poor job in communicating the issues involved. On the one side is unhinged alarmism in which the Global Warming Monster will come to your house and rip your face off if you don’t go green now, something very hard to take seriously when scientists talk about 50 to 100 year horizons in their papers. On another there are marketers using the green buzzword to charge yuppies an extra 30% for roughly the same products. And on the third, we have brain-dead green celebrities who fly private jets to Save The Rainforest concerts.

Environmentalists cite studies which predict that global warming may delay future ice ages as a big issue, despite the fact that the predictive power of such studies isn’t necessarily all that great and overall, the announcement would sound like a good thing to a layperson. We humans generally love the tropics and warm weather. Tell us that we’re delaying another ice age and we’re thinking “great, no need to freeze our tails off!” despite the time frame for this being more than 20,000 years in the future, a span more than twice the time between the first primitive writing and modern civilization. This also raises the question of why we have to deal with climate change now instead of just riding it out for the same laypeople environmentalists were just trying to prompt into action. Even worse, some of the most tone-deaf ones have been arguing that we should strive for zero GDP growth worldwide to put an end to this global warming thing once and for all. Yes, today, in a five year period in which the number one goal of the developed world was to boost GDP growth and generate more jobs.

Not only is this absurd, but it misses the point entirely. It’s like saying that because your old car is rickety, dangerous, and hard to drive, you should just give up on driving all together and just be happy that you learned how to drive and got a chance to do it once or twice instead of doing the rational thing and just fixing your car or getting a new one. The culprit is old technology. Upgrade to new technology and you’ll have cleaner skies. Pitch companies on cost-savings, efficiency, and how an investment in green technology will add to their bottom line. That’s how you get Wal-Mart to put up solar panels, or a community to install a wind farm, or prompt a materials lab to create better and more powerful photovoltaic materials to license them and make billions in royalty fees as utilities and people use them for cheap power.

Hell, don’t even call the green technology as such. Just build a better, cleaner, more modern versions of industrial equipment, incorporate biodegradability where you need it, and sell them as a new and improved models so the next time companies replace vital components for their factories and machinery, they get better, cleaner, more efficient products. You’re not going to get people on board with a mission to protect the environment if you make it an existential struggle between good, clean, beautiful nature and greedy humans who are raping and pillaging it for the sake of profit. The Earth will be here no matter how badly we pollute the skies or how much toxic waste we dump. It’s us who will get hurt in the end and we who stand to benefit from being green.

# politics // climate change / environmentalism / global warming

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