Blind Man with a Pistol

Carbon Copy

NDP Leader Jack Layton has “shocked” environmentalists by opposing Captain Climate Change Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax environmental platform. Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, accused Layton of “pandering to people who are afraid about rising gas prices” because of Layton’s claim that rising energy costs would hurt the Canadian poor compelled to heat their homes by Canada’s cold winter climate. Hazell has a point: a decent carbon tax scheme would offset the penalty lower-income families would have to pay with taxes from corporations and upper-income earners. Dion’s plan is allegedly “revenue-neutral.” The problem with the plan is not that it would penalize lower-income families, the problem with carbon tax shifting is that it is utterly useless in combating climate change.

In order for a carbon tax plan to reduce carbon consumption, first, the tax rate needs to be high enough to deter people from using carbon-based fuels and second, alternative fuel sources must be widely available for less money. Gas prices have gone up forty percent over the last four years, and oil prices are predicted to double by 2012. Yet consumption has not slowed; in fact, our fuel consumption levels (and greenhouse gas emissions) are at record levels. Will Dion’s Liberals be willing to match the equivalent in a carbon tax scheme? Unlikely: and they will need to do more than match it.

Where will the alternatively sourced energy come from? Canada is light years behind Europe in alternative energy sources (disgracefully, since, as a Nordic country we should be leading the world on climate change). And the “revenue-neutral” logic means that not a single penny from this carbon tax will go toward new investment in non-carbon alternatives. Since the goal of a carbon tax is to make carbon-based fuels prohibitively expensive, what can we use instead?

Of course, all this is nonsense anyway. In “The Idols of Environmentalism,” an essay that should be compulsory reading for anyone interested slowing climate change, Curtis White pinpoints the reason market-based solutions like carbon trading will never, ever work:

Environmental destruction proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

For instance, trading carbon emission credits and creating markets in greenhouse gases as a means of controlling global warming is not a way of saying we’re so confident in the strength of the free market system that we can even trust it to fix the problems it creates. No, it’s a way of saying that we are so frightened by the prospect of stepping outside of the market system on which we depend for our national wealth, our jobs, and our sense of normalcy that we will let the logic of that system try to correct its own excesses even when we know we’re just kidding ourselves.

There is something psychopathic about carbon taxes and carbon trading. You may kill this many of my children, we tell our polluters. You may poison this much of my drinking water. But no more. I have to draw the line.

Capitalism—especially in its corporate incarnation—has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty…

It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.

How can a country that subsidizes the filthiest, most destructive, most obscene project in the entire world, the Alberta oil sands, convince its population that it holds any truck with environmentalism? How can we be made to believe that paying a few million, even a few billion dollars will negate the scorched earth left behind in Athabasca? And yet we Canadians swallow such absurd contradictions when we are unable to make the connection between 500 ducks drowning in oil and the car we drive to work.

This is the message you would expect Canada’s left-leaning party to send: not some weak-kneed gesture to gas prices. The Liberals’ plan is wrong, but for reasons no one in Canada seems prepared to hear.

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How can a country that subsidizes the filthiest, most destructive, most obscene project in the entire world, the Alberta oil sands, convince its population that it holds any truck with environmentalism? How can we be made to believe that paying a few million, even a few billion dollars will negate the scorched earth left behind in Athabasca? And yet we Canadians swallow such absurd contradictions when we are unable to make the connection between 500 ducks drowning in oil and the car we drive to work.

Excellent summary of the contradiction and overall failure of current/proposed policies.

Halting the tar sands exploration/exploitation is never seriously considered and it should be. What is the worse that could happen? Alberta might become a have-not province? I would like to see a comprehensive cost benefit analysis of exploiting the tar sands under-taken and published. Let investors make a few sacrifices for a change.

Comment by Beijing York

You missed the most important point of a carbon price, which might explain why you call tax shifting “utterly useless in combating climate change” — that being the transfer of capital into alternative energy. That’s why Layton supports a cap-and-trade system, and that’s why Dion supports both cap-and-trade and a carbon tax. On its own, the carbon tax merely discourages behaviour. But when coupled with income and payroll tax cuts, it frees up necessary capital to invest into cleantech and alternative energy. This is critical, because when oil prices double, as you accurately predicted, energy will become so capital intensive that it will discourage investment. That’s what makes the timing of this plan so poignant.

The fact that Europe is “ahead” of us in the development of alternative energy means that it is immediately implementable, because we don’t have to “develop” the technology to use it. It can be done immediately.

Finally, I hope that in the future you’ll consider proposing constructive alternatives.

Comment by jim stone

Carbon trading is useless because it does not fulfill what it intends: to “discourage behaviour” as you put it. If higher prices discourage carbon fuel consumption, how do you account for the unprecedented consumption levels while gasoline prices have soared over the last five years? Shouldn’t the opposite occur?

As for alternative energy sources, it’s not enough to have the technology, we need the infrastructure to support demand. We don’t have it. This is why carbon-based fuel can go up as much as it likes—”there is no alternative” as Maggie Thatcher liked to say.

As for constructive alternatives to the carbon taxing or cap-and-trade (which both operate on the same economic principle: make people pay to pollute), a solution I could support (isn’t it a little disingenuous to ask a blogger to forward an entire governance platform?) would demand radical social change. As White’s article states, we cling to the same faulty logic that has got us into this position and we are fearful to relinquish it.

I suggest that we hold our nerve: align our priorities with a world we want to live in, not one we think we have to. Organize spaces around green modes of transportation: the pedestrian, the bicycle and the streetcar, not the automobile. Reduce consumption rather than find ways to pay for it. Tell the Athabasca sands that they can have no more. Not a drop. Hold our nerve; and if our politicians can’t cut it, get out.

Comment by catchfire

Totally agree with your green vision. But unfortunately, culturally speaking, it would take decades or centuries for this kind of radical social change to occur throughout all of our society. It’s happening now, in pockets, but the rest of them will always disagree with us.

Can’t we be pragmatic and try to influence the other half at the same time as we live the change ourselves?

Pragmatism also means taking responsibility. In a democracy, politicians are only people. Like us. If advocates for social change “get out,” then we’ll have forfeited any chance for change. I see people giving up all over the place. If those people would just take a little bit more responsibility, this country — and the world — might be a very different place.

I’m not asking for a platform, I’m asking for substance, no ill intended. I’m saying I hear your point about how people are eating the price increases in gasoline. But people with families and rural Canadians can’t so simply alter their lifestyles if they have no alternatives. They have no choice but to eat the prices. There will be no radical social change there, save for protest.

They need alternatives. And those alternatives will lead us/them to be pedestrians, cyclists and streetcar riders. All societies have been built around energy currencies like oil. We have to get the catalyst right; the cart before the horse.

Infrastructure is part of that package, certainly, as Dion has also advocated. Then again, that’s another argument.

Comment by jim stone

What is the worst that could happen if oil sands are blocked? You either you have enough of an imagination, or no grasp on history. Alberta would be invaded, and a willing government would extract the resource. Our best bet is to put in a government that slows development enough that reclamation of the land isn’t a complete flop. We also need to couple that with alternatives that are more appealing, and cheaper, and reduce the world’s demand for oil energy. It will be complicated, but we have to do it.

Taxing carbon has worked to reduce (not solve) emissions elsewhere, and it will work here.

Comment by saskboy

Typo: You either don’t have…

Comment by saskboy

saskboy: I’m not sure if an effective domestic energy policy is to keep the Alberta tar sands open because we are afraid of American invasion. But carbon taxing does seem like the response of someone thus terrified.

Disclaimer: this is a cultural criticism blog, not a policy or partisan one. It is not my vocation to broker compromise, but it is my position that what passes as “pragmatism” in this country as capitulation to destructive interests. I don’t think it impractical to want to hold the line against climate change if that’s what I believe it will take. In fact, I view “pragmatism” as part and parcel of the capitalist attenuation of our values, our welfare, and our society in general.

Comment by catchfire

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