Role of carbon tax in Green New Deal

Role of carbon tax in Green New Deal
© Stefani Reynolds

Climate change is a crisis that needs new thinking. For almost 30 years, the promise of cap-and-trade, carbon markets and faith in capitalism have generated a never-ending debate that has careened toward political inaction. Only a radically different approach like the Green New Deal — which combines environmental stewardship with social justice and jobs — will effectively mobilize America to slow climate change.   

Championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezProgressives push for changes to Pelosi drug pricing plan Sanders defends job losses from ending use of fossil fuels Trump spokeswoman: Health care will be 'big' selling point for union workers MORE (D-N.Y.) and a cohort of progressive freshmen, the Green New Deal is a full-throated demand for a massive government intervention to solve the climate crisis and build a robust and inclusive economy. 

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Unfortunately, as the climate solutions conversation expands, some Democrats still seem fixated on the half-solutions of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, lacking the vision of what real action on climate change looks like. Given the immediacy of the climate crisis, market pricing schemes should no longer be the centerpiece of a comprehensive climate strategy. 

Cap-and-trade programs (along with their immediate policy brethren, carbon taxes and cap-and-dividend) were elevated as the primary policy tool to address climate change. These market-based policies, predicated on pricing carbon, were designed and conceived to utilize the cold-hearted rationality of markets to reshape an economy addicted to fossil fuels. 

This didn’t happen.  

Fossil fuel companies — meant to be wooed by market solutions — continued to fight against them. Big Ag, as always, managed to escape from the program completely. Politicians fled at the first hint of anything looking like a tax. And environmentalists spent years engaging in jargon-speak rather than showing the public how tackling climate change could reframe how we organize our economy and provide lasting jobs.

Almost 30 years later, the planet is warming rapidly and cap-and-trade isn’t going to slow it down. Enough of hoping markets work magic. Enough of thinking that climate change is just a matter of “parts per million” and “aligning market forces.”

The public and political will to finally make real federal progress on climate change rests in solutions like the Green New Deal, which avoids the market-centric half-measures that have failed to address the scope of the climate crisis.  

It is time for a Green New Deal that demands a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 or earlier. And to act within what science tells us needs to be done, all new fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction would need to grind to a halt, keeping these extractive resources in the ground. The agriculture and land sector, responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, would need to massively transform, creating a healthy, just and climate-resilient food system. The plan would find other ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions by slashing energy waste, reducing meat consumption and curbing emissions from other sources like transportation.

Slowing climate change will require a massive public investment, a missing piece from previous climate proposals steeped in market fundamentalism. We need a Green New Deal that will rival the scope and impact of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan that pulled this country out of the Great Depression — because the onset of extreme climate impacts could easily cause one again. And in this proposal, taxing carbon merely would be one way of raising funds for this massive transition, one that was done in a socially conscious and just way.

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A just transition means ensuring that fossil fuel workers and fossil fuel-dependent communities are treated with dignity and respect. The new green jobs labor force must be given the right to organize, demand fair wages and safeguard a just transition for workers impacted by a rapidly changing economy. A just transition also means finding ways to increase economic and racial justice though public and cooperative ownership and focus on marginalized communities.

The real answer to climate change lies in systemic change: changing the way we manage, extract, use and distribute Earth’s natural resources under a new model of environmental, social, racial, economic and gender justice.  

It’s not enough to replace a profit-driven “dirty” and unjust energy and food system with a profit-driven “clean” and unjust one. In 50 years, we will understand that a far deeper economic transformation needs to occur right now.

Erich Pica is president of advocacy organization Friends of the Earth Action.