By David Bush
With the federal election looming the Conservative message is as simple as it is predictable: government taxes are making your life more expensive. For the rightwing the most glaring example of this is the new carbon tax. Canada Proud, Postmedia outlets and provincial and federal Tories have been hammering Trudeau over the carbon tax. Andrew Scheer’s campaign slogan, “It’s time for you to get ahead”, aims to connect with voters who feel “so frustrated because they’re working so hard, and they’re following all the rules, but they feel like they’re falling further and further behind.”
How voters feel about the carbon tax and the climate crisis in general will play a significant role in the election outcome, but the situation is contradictory. A recent Abacus poll shows that 42% of Canadians think climate change is an emergency, with only 12% believing it is an issue we should not be concerned about. But a June Forum Research poll showed 45% are opposed to the carbon tax compared to 28% in support. This dovetails with recent findings from the Public Policy Forum’s Digital Democracy Project, revealing that while there is limited support for the carbon tax, there is wide support for climate action—including collective solutions involving government planning and investment, such as subsidized renewable energy. In other words, people can barely afford the expenses they already have, and think that government should be making major investments to retool our economy to tackle climate change.
In this context, the Conservatives hope to galvanize opposition to the carbon tax and combine it with racist scapegoating to distract from austerity; the Liberals hope to champion the carbon tax to distract from their massive support for pipelines; and the NDP and Greens are simply tinkering with carbon tax details, ignoring the scale of the climate crisis and the real alternatives that the climate justice movement are putting on offer.
How the left addresses the carbon tax this election will have an outcome not only on federal politics but also on the climate and the climate justice movement. We need to address carbon tax arguments from the left and the right, the experience with carbon taxes and movements against them, and the much needed alternatives.
Carbon tax supporters, both left and right
The effectiveness of carbon tax or carbon price policy has long been debated in the environmental movement. The basic premise is that a price on carbon would help to incentivize the transition away from fossil fuels. As James K Boyce and Mark Paul argue in their leftist case for a carbon tax:
“Putting a price on carbon changes incentives. It encourages everyone — individuals, government agencies, and most importantly companies — to curtail their use of fossil fuels. Something that used to be free — our use of the limited carbon absorptive capacity of the biosphere — now costs money.”
The idea is to change the consumptive habits of individuals and tilt the balance towards greener investment for business. Carbon pricing schemes are usually paired with some sort of consumer rebate to offset some of the inequality arising from a flat fee on carbon. For some, carbon pricing mechanisms are part of a wider policy of carbon offsets that allow businesses to invest in green projects that will offset their carbon production. Some on the left argue that carbon-pricing schemes, when paired with a robust rebate or basic income, would be a key component in addressing the climate crisis.
Writing in Jacobin, Suresh Naidu argues that carbon taxes can reduce emissions and redistribute wealth, and can be paired with a global universal basic income. Economists Anders Fremstead and Mark Paul argue that socialists should embrace a carbon tax as part of a Green New Deal, stating “we cannot rapidly reduce carbon emissions without aggressively taxing the dirty fuels that produce.” In their People’s Policy Project report, “Disrupting the Dirty Economy: A Progressive Case for a Carbon Dividend” Fremstead and Paul argue that a carbon dividend is akin to creating a sovereign wealth fund, but with the ultimate goal of reducing the revenue entering the fund through the rapid contraction of carbon emissions. The carbon tax, they argue, is a policy focused on limiting demand, which would compliment investments in green infrastructure and more regulation on producers.
But it’s for these same reasons that big business and companies heavily instead in oil and gas production—including BP, Shell and Exxon Mobile—also support a carbon pricing and rebate scheme. As a recent report notes:
The initiative they’re backing would impose a predictable, nationwide price on carbon dioxide emissions — starting at $40 per ton — with the promise of deeper reductions in greenhouse gases than would be achieved through existing laws. For businesses, the plan also promises two potent prizes: a shield against climate-related lawsuits tied to past, legal emissions, and the end of federal regulations targeting greenhouse gas releases.
A recent study by New York University economist Amanda Kennard notes that corporations are not supporting carbon pricing schemes out of a concern about climate change. Rather firms are choosing to support more regulation in order to impose costs on domestic competitors. Corporations, especially multinationals, are seeking to benefit from the competitive advantage of new climate regulations like carbon pricing, especially if these regulatory regimes are variable across states and provinces. Big business has no problem with carbon pricing, especially schemes that provide it with plenty of wiggle room. That is why in the United States the pro-corporate Climate Leadership Council is pouring millions of dollars into lobbying efforts such as Americans for Carbon Dividends Climate.
Roots of the climate crisis
The problem with a market solution to the climate crisis, and to carbon pricing in particular, is that it rests on a flawed assumption that climate crisis and increased carbon emissions are happening because of an imperfect market. The free market, it is argued, does not factor in externalities such as carbon emissions or pollution into the price point. While it’s true that market prices do leave out all sorts of factors, climate change is not merely the result of an imperfect price point or flawed markets.
The roots of the climate crisis stem from capitalism itself. Capitalism is predicated on ever-expanding growth, on the exploitation and alienation of labour and on the transformation of the natural world into a mere appendage of the production process. The rise of fossil fuels is not an unfortunate by-product of capitalism, but interlinked with its development. As Andreas Malm notes:
“Fossil fuels should, by their very definition, be understood as a social relation: no piece of coal or drop of oil has yet turned itself into fuel. No humans have yet engaged in systematic large-scale extraction of either to satisfy subsistence needs. Rather, fossil fuels necessitate commodity production and waged or forced labour as components of their very existence”
The historic development of fossil fuels into the what Malm calls “the general lever for surplus-value production” facilitated the ability of capitalists to further exploit workers, appropriate resources from the Earth and expand across the globe.
Carbon tax in practice: protecting profits, not the planet
While we need to urgently and massively cut carbon emissions, the whole point of carbon taxes is to sustain them. Carbon taxes set different targets are set for each industry, with higher targets in industries with higher emissions. Companies that emit less than the target earn carbon credits, while companies that exceed the target can pay the government tax or they can purchase carbon offsets from other companies to make-up the difference. It’s no surprise that carbon taxes have failed to address the climate crisis, including both provincially and federally in Canada.
In 2008 the BC government enacted a carbon tax, which was supposed to cut emissions and be revenue neutral by offering low-income tax credits. But in practice BC’s carbon tax has been economically regressive—with more than 70% of carbon tax rebates going to businesses rather than individuals—without actually delivering much in the way of carbon emissions reduction. As David Roberts noted in a 2016 Vox magazine piece: “As a climate policy, the BC carbon tax is weak. It is weak along the metrics that matter most for climate policies: It doesn’t reduce emissions much, doesn’t spur much innovation or deployment of clean energy.” And how can the BC government claim any sort of progress on climate justice after the RCMP invaded Wet’suwet’en territory and recently arrested people for challenging pipelines.
The federal carbon tax was introduced in April, claiming to address climate change and meet Paris obligations. Trudeau’s climate plan, the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Green Growth and Climate Change, had four pillars: carbon pricing, adaptation, innovation and clean technology, and tightening other energy efficiency standards. While only the carbon tax has been enacted (with Trudeau scrapping or delaying most of the important regulatory changes and major green investments), none of this is sufficient. The Parliamentary Budget Office noted government policies are not enough to achieve emissions target, and a recent report by the Climate Action Network found that Canada’s current policies are on track for global warming exceeding 4 degrees, more than double the 1.5 C limit outlined in the Paris agreement .
When it comes to the environment Trudeau has not just opted for symbolic gestures over effective government action, he has actively facilitated the expansion of the oil and gas sector. Hours after declaring a climate emergency in June, the Liberal government approved the Trans Mountain expansion project, part of a massive pipeline project that will bring a million barrels of Alberta’s tarsands’ oil to the west coast. The approval of this pipeline expansion came after Trudeau’s government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline outright for $4.5 billion, a major gift to Kinder Morgan. Like Harper’s before him, Trudeau has no problem using the power of the state to take bold action when it comes to energy sector, so long as those actions favour the oil and gas industry.
Carbon tax opponents, both right and left
Putting aside that there is little real-world evidence that carbon pricing schemes have succeeded in reducing emissions, the strategy of the carbon tax creates some immediate and substantial political problems for the left. While the scale of the climate crisis leads many to support the carbon tax out of desperation or as a complement to broader climate action, the carbon tax actually forestalls much better alternatives. As James Wilt correctly notes in his article “The Leftist Case Against the Carbon Tax”:
“Most concerning of all is the way it serves to create resentment for – and siphon energy from – far more ambitious climate policy that would rapidly cut emissions, guarantee jobs, and improve public services for all.”
When resentment builds, it can either benefit the right or the left depending on who leads the opposition to carbon taxes—as can be seen from Australia and France. Elected on a wave of climate justice demonstrations, the Labour and Greens in Australia backed a carbon pricing scheme in 2011. This allowed companies to pass increased prices onto consumers and the majority of the climate movement supported this policy, with disastrous results. As Chris Breen reflects:
“The carbon tax painted climate action as linked to lower living standards. This meant the climate movement’s support for the tax cut it off from wider layers of workers. The movement became even more restricted to middle class supporters unconcerned by the prospect of rising prices. Enthusiasm for action on climate change dropped as a result. In 2006 the annual Lowy Poll showed 68 per cent viewed climate change as a ‘serious and pressing problem’ requiring action. But this was down to just 40 per cent in 2013.”
Tony Abbott’s Liberals were able to capitalize on the unpopularity of the carbon pricing scheme, forming government in 2013 and quickly scrapping the carbon pricing scheme. The climate movement took years to recover from this strategic misstep.
On the other hand, the situation in France shows the importance of fighting the carbon tax from the left. Rightwing President Emmaunel Macron introduced a fuel tax, claiming it would help meet their Paris commitments. But only 20% of the tax was set to go towards supporting the country’s transition to cleaner energy, with much of it earmarked for a pro-business tax credit. The tax was widely seen as putting the cost of addressing the climate crisis on the backs of workers. While the fascist National Front threatened to monopolize the opposition to the fuel tax and the growing frustration with economic inequality, the gilets jaunes movement exploded in the fall of 2018 as a progressive movement against austerity. Massive demonstrations across the country forced Macron to reverse his policy on the fuel tax and he remains wildly unpopular. As Nicole Aschoff noted the lesson of the Yellow Vests is, “not that climate action is politically toxic, but that coupling it with austerity and handouts to the 1 percent — failing to place blame on the corporate executives who deserve it — is a recipe for planetary disaster.”
Making peace with the carbon tax in order to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good is simply not an option. While many in the business community and some on the left argue that it is possible to decouple carbon emissions and economic growth through the carbon tax, the reality is that carbon pricing schemes are about preserving profits, not the planet.
Carbon taxes placate the demand for real systemic change and make it harder for the left to build the social power to enact the changes we actually need. As Eric Lescarbeau has aptly noted, “making workers pay for the crisis, rather than organizing the working class to make the 1% pay, undermines any basis we might have for building a mass climate justice movement with the potential to bring about systemic change.”
The range of debate on offer from the major political parties in Canada is pitifully narrow: all four parties have market solutions to the climate crisis that rely on carbon pricing as a solution. The NDP supports the Liberal plan, but with a slight change in how it would calculate emissions targets for industry: the NDP would set the target at 70 percent of the industry average, while the Liberals would set it at 80 to 90 percent. The Greens would set a uniform price for individuals and industry with annual increases of carbon prices of $10 per tonne, and it would not invest any of the carbon tax into green projects, but return it all to taxpayers through an equal dividend.
Andrew Scheer stated that the Conservatives would do away with the Liberal carbon price system and the fuel charge. The Conservatives would replace the existing carbon tax with a capped system, whereby industrial emitters would be required to invest an as yet undetermined amount of money in private-sector green technology for every tonne they exceed. While Scheer rails against carbon pricing and the carbon tax, the Conservative plan would be in effect pricing carbon for industrial emitters.
Technocratic solutions like the carbon tax, that posit solutions along utopian lines are flights of fancy that we have neither the time, nor the capacity to indulge. Rather than talking about the numerous structural changes that we would have to make as a society to address the climate crisis, the entire debate around climate policy leading into the federal election has been about carbon tax. And as it currently stands this is benefitting the rightwing.
Carbon taxes gloss over the systemic issues at the heart of the climate crisis, while also providing a major opening for the rightwing to seize on legitimate working class grievances and turn them towards hate. The likes of Scheer, Ford, Bernier and the forces to their right will aim to stir resentment against the carbon tax every chance they get. It would be a major strategic blunder for the left to cede opposition to the carbon tax to the right.
What advocates of the carbon tax fail to grasp is that solution to the climate crisis is political, not technical.
Green and Red Deal: decarbonize and decolonize
As the climate crisis escalates we cannot afford more missteps or dead-end ideas like the carbon tax. The best hope we have is to build a bold socialist vision of climate justice that is capable of speaking to the day-to-day interests of workers, while also inviting them to be part of a collective solution to the crisis. And there is an appetite for this: despite the tepid response from mainstream political parties, one third of Canadians agree that we need a World War Two like government mobilization to move our society away from fossil fuels.
Addressing climate crisis means building campaigns that speak to issues confronting workers in the hopes of activating as many people as possible in the fight for climate justice. This means linking climate demands with people’s material interests in the here and now, such as housing, jobs, transportation and increased democratic control over the economy and state policy. Framing environmental justice as a material interest is the promise of efforts like the Green New Deal.
But it is the countless efforts by Indigenous communities in fighting for environmental justice that should serve as the lodestar for the left. From the Grassy Narrows First Nation fight to combat mercury poisoning, to the Wet’suwet’en opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the history of Turtle Island is full of examples of Indigenous communities framing the fight for climate justice as a material interest that aims to build unity in order to transform our relationship with the Earth in a more equitable and justice manner.
This is why Nick Estes argues that the vision of a green economy must go hand in glove with the fight to end settler colonialism. Decolonization, the right to self-determination for Indigenous nations, is not some addendum to addressing climate crisis, but is integral in reshaping our relationship with the earth and democratizing our economy. The Red Nation, an Indigenous activist organization, has called for a Red Deal: a vision for climate justice, Indigenous treaty rights, land restoration, self-determination, decolonization and grassroots action and policy from below.
The climate strikes September 20-27 will provide an opportunity to interrupt the narrow climate debate during the federal election with a broad vision for climate justice. As Estes outlines:
“If every struggle were made into a climate struggle, then every struggle in North America must be made into a struggle for decolonization. The solutions offered in the Red Deal must entail a social revolution that turns back the forces of destruction. It must penetrate the economic and cultural realms with equal urgency and force. Indigenous peoples should be empowered to develop and implement restorative practices according to their own customs and traditions. This is the vision of the Red Deal, uniting Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in common struggle.“