Stephen Gottlieb: Greenhouse Gas Tax

Aug 13, 2019

Governor Cuomo recently announced a wind farm off of Long Island. Sounds big. But it made clear to me that we have to turn to a carbon or greenhouse gas tax. Big as that wind farm is, new government wind farms are rare. And government projects somehow have to compete with and make up for all the carbon released by private sources. As the economy improves, private sources just make more. That process has to stop.

Many people altruistically change their behavior. Others would if they could. But inevitably a lot of people take advantage of the freedom of countries like America to do what they please regardless of the harm they cause to others, to the country, our children, grandchildren and civilization. There is no good alternative to a greenhouse gas tax because nothing else affects the private behavior of those who refuse to change their behavior.

A carbon tax has to be universal – no exceptions – everyone and all businesses are involved in the problem and we all have to change. A tax can be revenue neutral with a tax cut to balance the expected revenue. Not only budgetarily neutral, but all of us can change behavior to reduce the impact of the tax on us. But no exceptions for favored groups. Everyone has to do their part or the program will deconstruct. It has to be universal to protect people from unfair burdens and unfair competition. Pogo’s comment that “we have met the enemy and they is us” is unfair to many of us. But we become the enemy if we resist change. Supporting a universal greenhouse tax should be something we do proudly and proclaim publicly, like flying the flag.

We’ve been talking about global warming since the 50s or the 80s depending on what we take as the starting point. Just to indicate how long we’ve been confronted with this problem, I worked with Barry Commoner and scientists working with him in the 70s, listened to James Hansen and major environmental reporters who came to and spoke at Albany Law School numerous times since I arrived here in 1979 – this stuff is not new. You can take that as meaning that the science is well established. Some may find that comforting. I find it terrifying because it indicates how slowly we’ve been moving.

The benefit of democracy is that the people can decide. But the problem of democracy is how difficult it can be to turn the ship of state, to convince everyone that needs to be convinced, and overcome all the people who have an interest in fouling up the works, through lobbying, political contributions and the real fake news, the repeated climate change denials when scientists who are not on the take all around the world have already had time to come together to try to warn us of impending disaster.

Come on folks. It’s time to insist on action. As a crowd of angry people chanted in Dayton, “Do something.” They’re both issues of mass murder. Do something. Now.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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