Why a Carbon Tax?

Author Rev. Raymond Roberts
Author Rev. Raymond Roberts

In Genesis 2:15 we hear God’s charge to the first human.

“The LORD God took the human and settled him in the Garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.” (CEV)

Sad to say, but instead of caring for God’s garden, we have imparted a lot of abuse.

Geologists call the geological age we are living in the Anthropocene Epoch because humans are now the biggest factor shaping the world. We move mountains to extract coal and other minerals. We have developed a global economy that regularly prefers economic efficiency to energy efficiency: We fly fresh fruit around the world, make clothes in China, Central America, Bangladesh, and drive long commutes to work – and to most everything else, for that matter.

We have altered the carbon and nitrogen cycles. We have made the oceans more acidic and filled them with huge rubbish patches of plastic. We’ve depleted fisheries and watched coral reefs collapse. We have created poisonous nuclear isotopes that will last hundreds, if not thousands of years. We have spread invasive species around the world, and today God’s creatures are dying off at a rate unparalleled in geologic history.

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I firmly believe that the single best way we can address global warming is to encourage people to reduce their personal consumption of carbon-based fuels by instituting a carbon tax.
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A significant dimension of the crisis we face is global warming. The Audubon Society fears the earth is warming so fast that half of all birds in North America are at risk and as many as 314 species may go extinct. For example, Red Knots’ (a shore bird) migration patterns used to coincide with Horseshoe Crab spawning on the Atlantic Coast of North America. However, global warming is causing the Horseshoe crabs to spawn earlier, meaning that the birds are arriving at former spawning sites too late to get a meal. These sorts of changes are impacting many species all over the world.

Photo Credit: The Guardian
Photo Credit: The Guardian

I firmly believe that the single best way we can address global warming is to encourage people to reduce their personal consumption of carbon-based fuels by instituting a carbon tax. Such a tax would impact behavior. It would make more fuel-efficient cars more attractive. It would make alternative fuels and transportation modes more competitive, spurring technical innovation and economic investment. It would help generate political support for and finance good public transportation. It would reshape structures of consumption that developed during decades of cheap oil to make them more sustainable.

It would also be fairer. Experts estimate that between 25% and 60% of our military budget goes to keeping the oil supply flowing for the global economy. (Estimates vary based on judgments about whether we become militarily involved in Iraq and Libya, as opposed to, say, Rwanda, because the former have oil reserves.) Whatever the actual cost, none of this expense is paid for by the people who benefit most, the people who burn it.

It is true, however, that at least over the short-term, a carbon tax would be regressive and therefore hit lower-income people harder. Since Christians called to care about the poor, this should raise concers for us as people of faith.

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Telling people that we need to pass a carbon tax is a little like telling people they need to lose weight or eat their spinach: People do not like hearing it.
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A number of things can be said about this. First, it is likely that global warming will hit poor people in the U.S. harder than wealthy people, as we already see happening around the world. Second, a carbon tax has the potential to change behavior. I would argue that most if not all people have some control over how much fuel they consume, even if at varying levels. They can be more selective about their trips, purchase more fuel-efficient cars, and drive in ways that reduce their tax burden. Networks of good public transportation, incentivized and financed by a carbon tax, would almost certainly disproportionately benefit the poor.

WindmillsFinally, some have proposed coupling coal, oil, and gas taxes with a rebate program. Perhaps the tax could be placed at the point of extraction or importation (which could have fewer negative economic side effects) and the funds used, as they are in Alaska, to send every citizen a check. Such a scheme could help a carbon tax cross the biggest hurdle, which is its unpopularity (interestingly, if you call this a “carbon offset” to help the environment instead of a “carbon tax,” this proposal is popular even among Republicans).

Even in 2014, the biggest challenge to doing anything about global warming is that too many people (25%) doubt that it is caused by human carbon emissions. But even if you, dear reader, are among those who maintain that 97% of climatologists are wrong, there are other good reasons to want to reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels. It would reduce the acidity of the oceans that is negatively impacting corals and shellfish. It would hinder unsavory oil despots who are destabilizing the world (Qatar, for instance). It would help us move into a future that is more economically sustainable and politically stable.

Telling people that we need to pass a carbon tax is a little like telling people they need to lose weight or eat their spinach (though I like spinach). People do not like hearing it. But the future made possible by a carbon tax would look more like the world God intended. And that is good news indeed!

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AUTHOR BIO: Raymond R. Roberts has a Ph.D. from Union Presbyterian Seminary. He is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Westfield and author of the book, Whose Kids Are They Anyway? Religion and Morality in America’s Public Schools.

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