Yellow Vests, Gas Taxes, And Getting Serious About Global Warming

Last week, I noted that, despite the rhetoric we hear from some quarters, we are not serious about combating global warming. Why? Because, even in cities where there is a shortage of multi-unit housing accessible by mass transit–the most energy efficient lifestyle–it is incredibly difficult to build more housing in any significant numbers. The ‘yellow vest‘ protests in France, which started over gasoline taxes, illustrate another difficulty (boldface mine):

France has turned into a bubbling cauldron of unrest over the past month as the so-called yellow vest movement has put up roadblocks and taken to the streets to protest a gas tax. Last week’s protests turned violent and facing a crisis, the government of Emmanuel Macron announced on Tuesday it would put a six-month moratorium on the tax.

The tax was meant to combat climate change and reduce carbon pollution. While it likely would’ve done that, it would’ve done so on the backs of France’s rural low and middle class. The mass revolt against it doesn’t mean those groups oppose climate action. It means that Macron needs to include them in discussions about the best way to address climate change as part of a just transition, something the world at-large is grappling with as it aims to get a handle on carbon emissions.

As I noted years ago about gasoline taxes (boldface mine):

I remember when I was living close to the bone, in a crappy apartment 75 yards from the LIRR. If someone had told me that I would end up paying $300-$600 per year more in gas tax, well there is a problem: I couldn’t afford it (and we’re not talking about [something like] having to remove my kids from private school, but basic necessities). And I didn’t have a choice-my job was in suburban Long Island, and a car was every bit as essential as oxygen. It’s like that in many parts of the country. While we can talk about net gains, there will be some losers–and they will be those who can least afford it.

Because I keep hearing about carbon taxes on the order of $250/ton of carbon. That would be around $2.20 of tax per gallon (a carbon tax of $50/ton would be 44 cents/gallon). That’s a lot of money. Of course, this would encourage people to drive less, but there’s only so much that can be avoided in most parts of the U.S. Even if the tax was revenue-neutral, in the sense that everyone gets an equal, flat credit on their taxes, people who have to drive a lot would still lose out*. And if most people don’t end up paying very much, then it really doesn’t have an effect on behavior. For this to work, to change behavior, it has to hurt. That’s how it works.

If this really is a national or global crisis, then we need to start think about more direct command-and-control options. There is no environmental equivalent of the zipless fuck.

*Also, lower income people might have to go into debt until the rebate arrives.

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2 Responses to Yellow Vests, Gas Taxes, And Getting Serious About Global Warming

  1. Lymie says:

    Points for “Fear of Flying” reference!

  2. Jeff Dutky says:

    Would making the carbon tax refundable make any difference in how palatable it would be to low income people? I tend to think not (getting the money back in six months doesn’t help your ability to buy food today). Maybe if we had robust public transport, so that people who couldn’t afford to drive could shift to other modes, we could expect low income people to be less aggravated by a carbon tax, but I know that’s just a pipe dream (and, if we were willing to fund robust public transportation, then we would already be doing something to combat climate change, so it’s a bit of begging the question). I think that carbon taxes should be partially refundable, specifically to offset their regressiveness, and even that the refund should not need to be “justified” by the tax payer (which turns the carbon tax into a redistributive tax), but there would still be pain from any carbon tax high enough to change people’s behavior (by design: it’s the pain that changes behavior, after all). I’m not sure how we can justify such pain, and avoid public unrest, under current political conditions.

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