“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, American astrophysicist and science communicator
This year’s unprecedented forest fires in the Northwest Territories, flooding in the southern prairies, drought in California and warmest May and June on record for the planet underline what climate scientists have been telling us for years: We must stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible or face catastrophic consequences. Among other impacts, we can expect:
* More severe storms, droughts, floods and wildfires
* The extinction of countless plants and animals
* Ocean acidification and sea level rise
* More difficulty in producing enough food to feed a growing population
* The destabilization of many nations from food and water shortages, which will increase the likelihood of conflict
Science has concluded that any increase in warming must be limited to no more than 2 C. On our current trajectory, we are looking at 4-5 C warming, which is well beyond the ability of modern civilization to manage or adapt. Staying under 2 C of warming will require the world to remain within a “carbon budget” of about one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Since the Industrial Revolution began, we have already released about half a trillion tonnes. That means that more than half the carbon budget has already been “spent”. However, corporations and nations presently control fossil fuel reserves – including Canada’s tar sands – amounting to five times the remaining half-trillion tonnes of CO2 that we can safely emit. We are on track to burn all of these reserves within only two or three decades, thereby sending warming well over 2 C.
It should be clear by now that climate change is not just about Polar Bears or unfortunate human populations living in far-flung places. It is about the future of human civilization as we know it. But, even at this late date, far too many people are hardly paying attention to the problem or remain skeptical about the claims science is making. And yes, we should be skeptical – at least initially – about any extraordinary claims that science makes. However, continually moving the goal posts and refusing to accept something for which there is extraordinary and overwhelming evidence – and scientific consensus! – is not healthy skepticism. It’s living in denial.
Many people who deny climate science do so because of its implications. They fear that by accepting the reality of climate change, they will open the doors to massive government intervention in the market place. This is anathema to people who believe strongly in free market capitalism. Their “solution” is therefore to deny that human-induced, catastrophic climate change is real. However, you don’t get what you want by denying the reality around you. In fact, I would argue that by delaying action on climate change, government intervention in our lives is likely to become even more heavy-handed and expensive to taxpayers. One only needs to look at the degree of government intervention that has been necessary to deal with events like Hurricane Sandy, the on-going drought in California and the floods in Calgary, Toronto and southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
A carbon tax
So, what do we do? First of all, there are no solutions that will have the desired impact – and work quickly enough – as long as fossil fuels remain the cheaper option. Simple economics dictates that the market will always gravitate toward the lowest cost. Fortunately, there is also a straightforward solution: Tax carbon. If you’re like most Canadians, your immediate reaction will be “Not another tax!” However, there’s more to the equation. Revenue from the carbon tax will be refunded equitably to taxpayers, either directly by way of a cheque or by lowering other taxes. In this way, households will have the extra income to offset additional energy costs arising from the new tax.
A carbon tax is not about creating economic hardship. It is simply a way of correcting the distortion in the marketplace that gives fossil fuels a competitive advantage. This advantage is unfair because fossil fuel companies are not paying the cost of polluting the environment. Because a carbon tax represents a market-based solution to climate change, other government regulations (e.g., fuel efficiency requirements for vehicles) become largely unnecessary. Taxing carbon also means that the price of fossil fuels will reflect their real cost to the environment and to humankind.
Many economists, including a surprising number of conservatives such as Mitt Romney economic adviser Greg Mankiw, believe that the market is the best vehicle for solving the climate problem. By establishing a gradually-increasing carbon tax, renewable energy like solar and wind will become competitive with and eventually cheaper than coal, oil and gas. In this way, greenhouse gas emissions will steadily decrease. Many people would argue that nuclear energy, too, must play a key role in our energy future, at least in the short term.
The B.C. experience
British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008. It started at $10 per tonne of carbon and rose gradually to the current $30 per tonne. At the pump, this translates to about 7 cents per litre of gasoline. To meet the requirement that the tax be revenue-neutral, equivalent cuts have been made to other taxes. These include special tax breaks that benefit low-income and rural residents. B.C. now has the lowest personal income tax rates in Canada and one of the lowest corporate rates in North America.
As a result of the carbon tax, fossil fuel use in B.C. has dropped by 16 per cent (compared to a 3 per cent rise in the rest of Canada) and the province’s GDP has slightly outperformed the rest of Canada’s since 2008. Moreover, the carbon tax is supported by 64% of voters and has garnered global praise as a model for the world. It should also be an inspiration for the rest of Canada to follow suit.
Many people will argue that human beings are too myopic and distrustful of government – and our political system far too partisan – for even revenue-neutral taxation to be accepted on a wide scale. This argument is hard to dismiss out of hand. However, some people who are initially against a carbon tax may be swayed by the argument that such a tax represents a market solution to climate change and that you don’t need to be a traditional environmentalist to support it. We must also emphasize that, being revenue-neutral, it is not a tax hike. The argument that the economy can’t “afford” a carbon tax makes no sense either. Climate change simply comes down to physics and chemistry and has no regard for what we can or cannot afford.
Let’s remember, too, that human beings are capable of making tremendous sacrifices for their children and grandchildren’s well-being. Just think of how we work so hard to pay for higher education savings plans that won’t provide measurable benefits for years to come. This is how we should look at a carbon tax: a little bit of short-term inconvenience in adjusting to a low-carbon lifestyle in order to benefit future generations. There is one benefit, however, that would immediately accrue to all of us: a greater sense of optimism about the future. Why? Because we would be taking action. Optimism is in short supply these days, especially among young people who fear for what their lives will be like on an over-heated planet. The mental health toll of the problem should not be underestimated. Climate change-related natural disasters causing property losses and displacement from residences are already known to produce significant psychological stress, with long-lasting effects on anxiety levels and depression.
In the final analysis, agreeing to a carbon tax comes down to whether enough of us open our eyes and minds to the ominous news that science has laid at our doorstep. By rejecting or minimizing the message and choosing either business as usual or convenient half-measures, we will be condemning our children and grandchildren to a much poorer, unstable and frightening future on this planet.