Good Ideas Department: Let’s implement a luxury carbon tax, because not all carbon is created equally

Philippe Benoit, a research scholar at Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia, has a good idea, a luxury tax on carbon. As he explained it in an op-ed in The Hill:

You’ll get no argument from me!

For $250,000, the super-rich will soon be able to visit sub-space. Meanwhile, back on earth, American workers will drive pickup trucks to their jobs and families will keep their thermostats low to save on heating costs.

All three will generate greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists explain that the climate impact of carbon emissions is the same irrespective of why and where they are created. That, in part, is why many economists want to tax all carbon the same. 

But does it make sense from a policy perspective to ignore why and how the carbon was created? Is it sensible to treat the emissions from highly discretionary and luxurious consumption by the rich the same as those generated to meet basic needs of middle-class and poorer households? There is an argument to say no.

Maybe not all carbon is created equal. Unsurprisingly, just as there is income inequality, there is inequality in carbon emissions. In the United States, the richest 10 percent emit four times more than the bottom 50 percent; the disparity is even greater at a global level and for the top 1 percent. Billionaires and millionaires enjoy a lavish carbon-heavy lifestyle that isn’t accessible to middle-class families. Flying transatlantic first class in the front of the plane generates four times more carbon than riding in the back in tightly-packed economy.

Or consider high-end sports cars or yachts or private jets (remember the criticism leveled against Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for taking private jets while advocating for action on climate).

The luxury emissions market is big and getting bigger. Americans purchase 2 million luxury vehicles a year, while luxury yacht sales total $5.7 billion globally and is expected to grow to $10.2 billion by 2025. 

Soon there will be space tourism, a novel but GHG-intensive activity restricted to the super-rich. And the potential for luxury emissions is growing as the number of millionaires worldwide increases from 42 million today to a projected 63 million in 2024. 

Yet, we all share one common carbon budget, estimated at below 1,100 GtCO2. In contrast to incomes where “more is better” and even extravagant spending by the rich can produce jobs for working-class families, carbon is a “zero-sum” game: the more the rich emit through their lavish lifestyles, the less there is for everyone else.

While wealth globally keeps increasing, the carbon budget keeps getting smaller, eaten up in part by the high-carbon extravagant activities of the rich. A luxury carbon tax could be used to charge the rich for this climate extravagance, one that wouldn’t apply to the emissions generated by working families in making ends meet.

And in deciding how much to charge, we don’t need to follow the traditional approaches of tying the tax to the “social cost of carbon” or using a uniform rate based on carbon content. Instead, we could apply a tax rate well above the carbon impact of these extravagant emissions precisely because they constitute a wasteful use of our common carbon budget. 

How much should we tax someone for spewing carbon on their $52 million visit to the International Space Station? A lot.”

Climate Change is not World War

I am no fan of Roy Scranton’s 2015 book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (which sported the fashionably dark subtitle “Reflections on the End of Civilization.”) But, as Bob Dylan says, Things have Changed. At least a bit. Scranton’s still doggedly dark, but these days his lessons are more useful. 

In mid-September, just before Climate Week in Manhattan’s UN districts, he published an excellent piece in the Times under the title Climate Change is not World War. It should be required reading, especially by those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of incanting the phrase “World War Style Mobilization” when talking about what a true climate mobilization would be like. As if it would somehow be win / win all the way down the line:

Here’s a sample:

“[M]uch of this rhetoric involves little or no understanding of what national mobilization actually meant for Americans living through World War II. As a result, the sacrifices and struggles of the 1940s have begun to seem like a romantic story of collective heroism, when they were in fact a time of rage, fear, grief and social disorder. Countless Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and nearly everyone saw himself caught up in an existential struggle for the future of the planet.”

Here’s another

“[M]obilization during World War II was a national mobilization against foreign enemies, while what’s required today is a global mobilization against an international economic system: carbon-fueled capitalism. It took President Franklin D. Roosevelt years of political groundwork and a foreign attack to get the United States into World War II. What kind of work over how many years would it take to unify and mobilize the entire industrialized world — against itself?”

Here’s a third:

“Finally, national climate mobilization would have cascading unforeseen consequences, perhaps even contradicting its original goals, just like America’s total mobilization during World War II. Looking at the myriad ways that World War II changed America, for better and worse, suggests that it’s difficult to know in advance the ramifications of such a sweeping agenda. “

There’s more, and not saying I agree with all of it. In particular, I think  anything like a true climate mobilization would have to be accompanied by a profound turn towards economic justice, which I’m betting Mr. Scranton would consider naive. But if we want to be tough minded about the realities we’re now facing, and it seems we do, there are insights here that have to be reckoned with. 

This is not going to be easy. 

Despair Watch: Jonathan Franzen Edition

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, recently published a piece in the New Yorker that caused a bit of stir, including with me. The piece is called What If We Stopped Pretending?, and let’s just say it’s not particularly optimistic. In fact, its subtitle is “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

You should read Franzen’s piece, not just for itself but because there’s more where this came from, and there will be still more coming down the pike.  It would be good if we could all get our thoughts in order. I’ve already done so, because I’m writing a piece on the culture of climate despair. I fired off a letter to the editor, and they actually published it.

Here’s what I said:

“The most exemplary of the new books on climate change—David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Bill McKibben’s “Falter”—struggle for an honesty that does not counsel despair. Franzen’s argument, which suggests that attempts to mobilize are at odds with conservation and even with moral clarity, is an unhelpful distortion of the truth. We have the money and the technology to save ourselves. The tragedy, if it comes to that, will be that we don’t do so, even though we can. “

Unflinching Truth, Unwavering Hope

I just published, in the Earth Island Journal, a very brief review of “the two exemplary climate crisis books of the current moment.” They are, in case you were wondering, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells, the newbie, and Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? , by Bill McKibben, the elder. I also comment, in passing, on a few other recent climate books, which I find less exemplary.

Jason Hickel on the “New Optimists”

I don’t know who Jason Hickel is, but I’m in danger of becoming a fan of his. His recent piece, Progress and its Discontents, which was published in New Internationalist in early August, has made the danger acute. Just for starters, it’s an excellent, and data-heavy, critique of Stephen Pinker’s infuriating apologia for today extreme inequality. But it goes far beyond this to show how Pinker and his pal Bill Gates torture the poverty stats in order to support a “New Optimism” that obscures just how terrible the global inequality crisis really is.

Just one quote:

“Consider this rather strange paradox. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says that there are 815 million people in the world today who do not have access to enough calories to sustain even ‘minimal’ human activity; some 1.5 billion are food insecure and cannot get enough calories to sustain ‘normal’ human activity; malnutrition is suffered by 2.1 billion. And the FAO says that these numbers are rising. In other words, the $1.90 [poverty] line peddled by Gates and Pinker would have us believe that there are fewer poor people than hungry and malnourished people, and that the number of poor is decreasing even while the number of hungry is rising. “

I can’t recommend this piece too highly, and this despite the fact that it doesn’t have anything to say about the climate crisis.

Climate Code Red – a must read scenario

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The Australian analysts at Climate Code Red are absolutely indispensable, as has been obvious since the 2017 publication of What Lies Beneath. But I’d like to draw special attention to Existential climate-related security risk: A Scenario approach, which they recently published under their new name, “Breakthrough,” which is absolutely not to be confused with the US-based “Breakthrough Institute.”

Seriously, don’t miss this report. It’s mercifully short, and its reference scenario is all too likely. Which is not at all good news. And while you’re at the Breakthrough site, take a look as well at Climate Emergency: What is safe, the 1.5º target, and is the end nigh?, wherein Breakthrough’s David Spratt explains the 1.5C target to an Australian Extinction Rebellion group.

David Spratt on 1.5C

David Spratt, the Australian hawk behind Climate Code Red, and now the Australian Breakthrough Institute, is very good on the science. And on what he calls the “emergency mode.” Not that going into “emergency mode” answer all questions about what must be done, or how to do it. But set that aside for the moment. If what you want is a summary of the science in which there are no punches pulled, watch this presentation, which David gave to a Australian Extinction Rebellion crew in May of 2019

“The Case for Climate Reparations”

Climate politics can be brutally difficult. You have to tell the truth, for one thing, but if that’s all you do, you lose. The real trick is telling the truth in a helpful manner, one that opens doors. So kudos to Jason Mark, the Editor-in-Chief of Sierra Magazine, who pulls this off nicely in The Case for Climate Reparations, the cover story of the current issue.

The subtitle, “It’s Time the Carbon Barons Paid the Costs for our Unnatural Disasters,” signals the secret of Mark’s success. He’s asking for something real, but he’s not asking for the world. This is the Transitional Justice way. Reparations are just one tool in the toolkit, one device among many. The real challenge is to face history, and to do so in a meaningful way that makes it possible to then move forward.

That said, reparations are a very special device, for they go beyond the recognition of past wrongs to demand paybacks for historical debts. In South Africa, after Apartheid, these are the debts owed by colonizers to their former subjects. Today, in the United States, on the reparations for slavery front, they are the living legacy of the Confederacy, and of “reconstruction” and its cruelties, and of “the new Jim Crow.” (For more on these themes, see The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

But, again, Mark is making a measured case. He’s not even naming the great challenge of “differentiated responsibilities” a phrase from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that, overplayed in decades of often bitter negotiations, has left the realists terrified of equity in any form. Quiet conveniently terrified, actually. He’s just talking about the fossil corporates, his “carbon barons,” and suggesting that it’s their time on the block, their time to face history.

The Sierra Club should be congratulated for this piece. I hope they don’t have to put up with too much carping for running it.  Because the truth is that, unlike the challenge of mitigation — which can to some degree be met with technology, and market mechanisms, and policy reforms — the challenges of adaptation and loss & damage are absolutely going to elude the devices of politics as usual. When the waters rise in earnest, and they will, when the deserts spread and intensify, and they will, the question of responsibility is going to hang heavy in the air.

In fact, it already does. And facing it in a helpful way is going to be hard. But, hey, we gotta start somewhere. Why not with the fact the Exxon lied?