For this week's Green Issue, our cover story ("Save the world, work less") looks at how our economic system is accelerating climate change, proposing that we slow down and work less. It's a fun little thought experiment that revives an important goal that has somehow been forgotten in modern political discourse.
But there's another solution that attacks the global warming problem more directly and immediately, one that is compatible with our modern capitalist framework and which could and should be adopted now. It's time to institute a carbon tax, which would place a price on greenhouse gas emissions and help to curb them.
California Senate President Darrell Steinberg made waves in February when he proposed replacing key parts of California's cap-and-trade program with a carbon tax and using two-thirds of that money for tax rebates to Californians making $75,000 per year and less to offset the higher cost of gasoline, utility bills, and other areas affected by the tax, and one-third to improve public transit.
The logic behind the proposal is unassailable: If we want to control greenhouse gases, tax the burning of the molecule that creates them. A carbon tax is a far better and more direct means of addressing climate change than California's new cap-and-trade system, an overly complex half-measure that can be gamed or used to excuse unacceptable forms of pollution.
Of course, a range of capital interests and other powerful players lined up to oppose Steinberg's proposal, leading the pundits to declare it dead. So his Senate Bill 1156 was modified this week to allocate revenues from the cap-and-trade auction, which could total $5 billion annually, to specific needs: 30 percent to public transit, 40 percent to affordable housing and sustainable communities, 10 percent to complete streets programs (bike lanes), and 20 percent to the California High-Speed Rail Project.
Those are good priorities and we support them all, but we're disappointed to see Steinberg shrink from a fight that was worth having. The country needs a carbon tax if we're going to meet our obligation to help mitigate a problem that Americans have created more than anyone else in the world on a per-capita basis. This is our mess and we need to play a big role in cleaning it up, rather than passing that obligation onto poor countries and future generations.
Taxes are a time-honored tool to regulating behaviors and providing for the common good. A carbon tax would finally make users pay the full cost of their choices, such as driving a car or traveling by airplane, thus encouraging less carbon-intensive lifestyles. If this state can't implement a carbon tax. the federal government should.