The rich can survive on a polluted planet, the poor cannot — a carbon tax is the great equalizer

The rich can survive on a polluted planet, the poor cannot — a carbon tax is the great equalizer
© Getty Images

Just when partisan fervor has reached new heights in the halls of Congress, Republicans and Democrats are beginning to agree on policy in an unexpected area: climate change. The economic viability and positive environmental impact of a carbon price have energized both sides of the aisle. 

On Tuesday, Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE (R-Fla.) announced that he’ll introduce a carbon tax as a means of generating funds for infrastructure improvements and reducing the pollution driving climate change. Earlier this year, Sens. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzGyms, hotels, bus companies make last-ditch plea for aid On The Money: Stocks fall as COVID-19 fears rattle market | Schumer sets infrastructure showdown | Dems struggle to sell agenda The Hill's Morning Report - Surging COVID-19 infections loom over US, Olympics MORE (D-Hawaii) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseLobbying world Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Christine Blasey Ford's lawyers blast FBI's Kavanaugh investigation as 'sham' MORE (D-R.I.) introduced carbon tax legislation, as well. 


At first, it may seem difficult to see the connection between the policy of a carbon tax and a more sustainable world. With a federal law that puts a price on the pollution that is driving climate change, industries would no longer pollute the air for free. By simply making it more expensive to pollute, technologies like wind and solar become more competitive than their polluting big brothers.


Thanks to a growing body of research in the economics of energy, we know that a strong economy and a future free of fossil fuels are synergistic. 

The Solutions Project at Stanford University, for instance, has built a roadmap to 100 percent renewable energy that takes into account the unique challenges that each state faces in its transition away from fossil fuels. The roadmap demonstrates that the cost of such a path would be substantially less than what each state would spend given its current financial trajectory. In fact, a transition to renewable energy would be a mere quarter of the overall cost of the current fossil fuel system.

While the transition to 100 percent renewable energy is possible, we need smart and pragmatic policies to make it a reality. What will it take to spur the shift away from dirty, polluting enterprises? Nicholas Stern, chairman of the Grantham Research Institute, has argued that a carbon price should be set high, at around $40-80 per ton of carbon dioxide by 2020, and $50-100 by 2030 to deliver the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Without a carbon price, the economy responds to powerful interests at the expense of building a cleaner world for everyone. For example, executives in China can afford cars with advanced filtration systems that scrub the indoor air of the pollution outside. Wealthy Americans buy homes far away from communities burdened with pollution from power plants that poison the lungs of poorer kids

This division — between those with the financial means to insulate themselves from a toxic environment and those who have no choice but to be exposed to it — doesn’t arise from the willful intent to do harm but is actually the reaction of an economy that responds to the decisions of those with money.

The bills from Curbelo, Schatz and Whitehouse address this issue by assigning a tax to carbon pollution, effectively moving the burden of climate change away from the lungs of the marginalized poor and to the pocketbook of industry — one dollar at a time.

Instead of tacitly perpetuating an economy that better serves those who can afford to escape a warming, increasingly polluted world, we can champion policies that proactively build the sustainable, clean, and just future of tomorrow that serves the interests of all people.

Nationally, a grassroots push for carbon pricing has gained steam. A diverse coalition of organizations in Washington State have collected upwards of 380,000 signatures — enough to put a price on carbon on the ballot this November. Just last month, the Massachusetts Senate passed a carbon pricing bill, thanks in large part to the political pressure and momentum generated by students and millennials organized by groups like Our ClimateTen other states, plus the District of Columbia, are also advancing some form of a price on carbon.

Fifteen countries already have some form of a price on carbon emissions, and the United States — thanks to the actions of states that stand as a repudiation to federal inaction — will soon join their ranks. Federal legislation has the potential to advance the states’ collective efforts and would signal the potential of climate change efforts to become bipartisan.

Creating an economy that works for all of us starts by establishing a universal right to environmental equality, regardless of where we live or how much money we have. It is fundamentally unjust to perpetuate an economy where climate change disproportionately hurts the marginalized and rewards the wealthy. Instituting a carbon price can level the playing field and begin to build the sustainable world we know is possible.

Jake Kornack is a member of Our Climate Board of Directors.