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A carbon tax would harm the poor

David Legates
David R. Legates is a Professor of Climatology, a Senior Fellow of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and a Director of the Science and Environmental Policy Project |

I recently gave a talk to a local group of outstanding young people in Delaware who aspire to be leaders in and around our state. I presented them with observed, empirical facts: Delaware’s climate is not changing disastrously. Restricting carbon dioxide will have little impact on our climate.

Nevertheless, many still wrote to me to say they firmly believe the most significant problem facing Delaware is the adverse impact the consumption of fossil fuels has on our environment and that limiting their use must be our primary goal.

Many feel a carbon tax is the best way to achieve independence from fossil fuels and to ‘stabilize’ our climate — even though our climate has never been constant throughout all of Earth’s history, and carbon dioxide is a mere bit player in affecting climate change.

Unfortunately, many people do not realize that taxing businesses simply increases their cost to produce goods and services. This tax is therefore passed on to consumers. The so-called “tax on carbon” is no exception. Businesses will pass the cost of these carbon taxes on to consumers, making energy more expensive. Moreover, everything that uses energy — transportation, manufacturing, heating and cooling, cooking, etc. — also will become more expensive.

In fact, that is exactly the point of a carbon tax. Taxing the use of fossil fuels is designed to make both businesses and consumers pay a price for what environmentalists see as a negative impact on our climate. If energy becomes more expensive, people will be ‘nudged’ away from fossil fuels by using less energy.

Historically, countries that have adopted a carbon tax have seen electricity and gasoline prices skyrocket. The recently-repealed Australian carbon tax, for example, caused electricity prices for the average Australian to increase by 10% — but it had little impact on emissions. Similar impacts occurred in Canada, where gasoline prices have risen to almost $5 a gallon although Canada is still far short of its emission goals. Protests and riots erupted in France, and even environmentalists in the United States are rethinking the concept of a carbon tax.

Much of the problem with a carbon tax is that to elicit a change in consumer behavior, a carbon tax must be made so onerous that society is forced to switch to “clean” energy sources such as solar and wind.

But solar and wind are anything but clean. They require significant amounts of rare earth minerals such as neodymium and dysprosium, which are used in the magnets needed to create offshore wind turbines. Removal of these minerals from the soil, however, causes extensive air, water, and soil pollution. Mining operations involve removing layers of soil and chemically treating them to separate out the desired minerals. Such efforts have largely been banned in the United States and other developed countries, but they continue in less developed countries like China.

In addition, wind turbines lead to the deaths of many birds and bats each year due to air pressure changes and spinning blades. Solar energy requires extensive land use that can adversely lead to loss of habitat. Wind and solar energy are not “environmentally friendly.”

Effects of a carbon tax, however, will unduly burden the poorest citizens. In 2014, a study at Stanford University concluded that “households in the lowest income group pay, as a percent of income, more than twice what households in the highest 10 percent of the income distribution pay.”

Lower-income households usually live in less energy-efficient housing and often have farther to commute to work. They generally spend more of their income on heating and electricity than more affluent households and drive cars that get poorer gas mileage. Such a tax imposed upon our poorest citizens would greatly reduce their ability to provide for their families, thereby making them more dependent on government subsidies and handouts.

A carbon tax, therefore, is a highly regressive tax.

But a carbon tax assumes that the harm done by carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use exceeds the benefits derived from the fuels and their emissions. There is good reason to think the benefits of the emissions — in enhanced plant growth and hence more abundant and affordable food and a general greening of the planet — could by themselves exceed the costs. Certainly the trillions of dollars’ worth of goods and services derived from the energy — from heating and air conditioning homes and workplaces, to transport fuels and communications, to light and refrigeration, to computers and medical technology, and beyond — outweigh the harms from the emissions.

Unfortunately, both Democrats and Republicans have advocated for a carbon tax during the past two years, although both sides argue that taxpayers should receive a rebate to offset its cost. The Climate Leadership Council even admitted that creating a large carbon tax and then giving a small share of it back to taxpayers would guarantee the tax would never be repealed. Taxpayers would be duped into thinking they were getting something for nothing and would refuse to give up “free money.”

I shudder to think that many of our future leaders are unwilling to examine the science and, despite the situation in our nation and around the world, erroneously believe that carbon dioxide emissions are the largest existential threat — or even a threat at all — and that taxing carbon dioxide will have any measurable effect on the Earth’s climate, even while it harms our poorest citizens.

David R. Legates is a Professor of Climatology at the University of Delaware, a Senior Fellow of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and a Director of the Science and Environmental Policy Project.

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