The difference between wanting a carbon tax and getting one

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Negotiation is the process by which value is determined by the intensity of the involved parties’ desires. The more that one party wants something the other controls, the greater the leverage of the petitioned party. Often, appearing to want something less is what stands between striking a fair deal and outright failure. This market-derived lesson is one that proponents of a carbon tax must learn, and quickly.

At the Northern California Citizens Climate Lobby conference, a room of more than 300 highly motivated and genuinely passionate people packed a large conference room on a Friday night to listen to a panel discuss what the moderator, Greg Dalton of the Commonwealth Club, referred to as “the end of the world.” Over the course of a two-hour conversation, the panelists considered how a carbon tax would work; what to do with the money that it would collect; and questions of political strategy. All of these issues were approached through the prism of the evening’s prompt: “Pricing Carbon: Can Conservatives and Progressives Agree?”

As one of the panelists, I was struck by the seriousness with which the audience took the panel’s suggestions. Members of CCL believe, rightly, that reconciling the disparate aims of the left and the right is a prerequisite to “creating the political will for a livable world.” Toward that end, members strive to pocket their normative political preferences in the hope that their organization, and its proposal, will attract bipartisan support.

The group’s executive director, a bespectacled and affable gentleman named Mark Reynolds, strives mightily to maintain his group’s rigid message discipline. He deserves credit for doing so; CCL has been astonishingly successful since he took over. The lobby has doubled in size for each of the last five years and now counts more than 16,000 members within its ranks. More importantly, CCL is meeting with elected officials and providing a constructive outlet for a hitherto misdirected potent political force.

Yet like many other groups in the carbon tax and larger climate-change movement, CCL faces an obstacle intrinsic to its effort. Virtually all of its members believe climate change is the single greatest threat that faces the nation, and that the threat is imminent. Why else would anybody sacrifice an unseasonably warm Friday night in San Francisco?

This unspoken assumption was given a voice as the evening wound down and the audience had an opportunity to present the panel with questions. An earnest woman in the front row asked gravely, “how much time do we have left?”

Responses from the panel varied wildly, but two broad themes emerged. The first, articulated by Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, was that action cannot come soon enough and that time is short to avert catastrophe. The loud round of applause that followed his observation suggested that his belief largely jibed with the audience’s.

The second theme, championed in a memorable fashion by Future 500 President Bill Shireman, was that, since he became an environmentalist decades ago, the refrain that “we only have 10 years left to act” has become all too familiar. In other words, that action is necessary but there is some time left to act. The response to Bill’s comment was subdued, suggesting that the very active core of CCL’s membership does not believe delay is tolerable.

If they hope to succeed, those audience members would do well to change their approach, if not their belief. Persuadable elements of the right, though willing to listen and even to deal, do not share their “world is ending” anxiety. Without that urgency, and keen to achieve their public policy gains, an empowered right will be emboldened to seek concessions commensurate to the perceived level of desperation they encounter. A scenario in which conservative support for a carbon tax is predicated upon the end of, for instance, the Affordable Care Act is not unthinkable.

At a certain point, the right’s asks will become so large that allies of convenience on the left (labor or poverty advocates) will be forced to abandon their support of climate-change legislation in favor of their own core priorities. For this reason, the time horizon question will prove dispositive unless carbon tax advocates’ urgency can be tempered.

Ultimately, averting the “end of the world” may well require appearing to care less about the world’s end.

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  • SageThinker

    There will be no concessions. Do not mistake earnest desire for a carbon tax with willingness to enter a fool’s bargain. I have no opinion on the Affordable Care Act, except that it shall not be coupled to a carbon fee and rebate. A carbon fee and rebate is an issue unto itself. It works on one specific problem, and we will leave it that way. We need a simple revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend. That is the market solution that solves a physics problem using economics. That is the solution that genuine people who identify as left or right or independent like myself are demanding. It’s a win/win/win and there is nothing more to add.

  • peter joseph

    Ian, as one of the conference organizers, we thank you for participating, and we appreciate the supportive relationship between CCL and R Street. Your advice not to appear hysterical is sound. While we do feel a deep sense of urgency based on the consensus opinion of the experts, note that CCL’s proposal will take a decade to get the carbon price over $100/ton. That’s not a panicky move, but one which appreciates economic and political reality. We also trust that markets will act quickly in anticipation of a steeply rising price signal well before it gets into real money, and that consumer demand will spur innovation in supply. As Secretary Shultz has advised us, a carbon tax bill should stand alone and not be connected to other issues like the ACA, the EPA, or general tax reform. And whatever one imagines the time line to be, I think we all agree that we risk a very dangerous threat which needs to be addressed as aggressively as possible. We thank you for your advice on how to nuance our message most effectively.

  • 2degrees

    Ian, I think you are making a great point. And there have already been suggestions of coupling climate legislation to social programs.

    I think there is a middle way, implied by Peter’s response below. Let’s distinguish between an “end of the world” sense of urgency about climate change and a sense of urgency about climate legislation. This might be the distinction which CCL volunteers would do well to recognize. The merits of the CCL proposal as a 1) driver of market-based solutions, as a 2) job-creating economic stimulus, as a 3) Pigouvian (conservative) tax measure stand on their own. It’s a win-win-win. Why wait?

  • jfreed27

    I like Bill McKibben’s view on countering climate change. “If we win too slowly, we lose”. Delay will cost us $trillions and untold human misery.

  • It is what it is. CCL is actually late already on getting concrete action started on reducing C02.
    If they thought the world was ending soon, they would not start with such a low price on carbon.
    CCL also wants the revenue to be returned to the citizens. If the were really desperate they would not care where the revenue goes and they would not be taking so much time to convince the politicians their way is the best way.
    Fact is, every day we delay, the worst our condition will get. We will never get back to 350ppm as Bill McKibben suggests. Scientists like Richard Alley, other members of the IPCC seem to think we have time to save ourselves, but I am not convinced. The IPCC needs to close it’s doors as politicians are hanging on to them for constant updates on the situation. Their work is finished as far as I am concerned. Our last chance to get our act together is now. Nature could care less and will survive.

    • SageThinker

      Fred, your arguments here do not pass the test of basic logic. Just want to point that out.

      • Logic and truth can be two different animals.

        • SageThinker

          I appreciate your position and your acknowledgement that we must act to reduce the severity of the climate crisis.

          I was speaking about the reasoning contained in these sentences:

          A) “If they thought the world was ending soon, they would not start with such a low price on carbon.”

          I will speak as myself but please take it to mean CCL folks in general.

          I do *not* think the world is “ending” soon but i *do* know that the climate is very likely headed to chaotic state flipping and the sooner we reduce our carbon emissions, the better chances we have that it’s more manageable or survivable.

          The starting price on carbon is a balance between the realpolitik, and the need to avert catastrophe. It’s a balance, and the level of a starting price on carbon does *not* reveal any hidden cards by any CCL people. That’s a pure logical fallacy.

          B) “CCL also wants the revenue to be returned to the citizens. If the were really desperate they would not care where the revenue goes and they would not be taking so much time to convince the politicians their way is the best way. ”

          Here again, the logic does not hold. It does not reveal truth.

          Fairness to people is important to passage of the policy as well as its effects both on human welfare and on climate adaptation. Returning revenue to the people is good for the chances of passage as well as the effects on the people and the planet.

          Your reasoning does not hold, for me. And i know empirically that CCL folks are very concerned about climate crisis, and continue to pursue this strategy because they think it’s the best and most likely to succeed — no hidden agendas as you think you have found.

          Please acknowledge this, or explain clearly and understandably how i am wrong about this.

    • xoviat

      I think the key to an effective carbon tax is that, as you said, it should be returned to the people, and you shouldn’t have to pay it if you can prove that you are offsetting the carbon elsewhere.

      For example, there are emerging technologies that capture carbon from the air. If you manage to employ a technology that captures your emissions, then you shouldn’t have to pay the tax. Similarly, if you have invented some GMO trees that capture carbon more efficiently, you shouldn’t have to pay the tax on carbon that the trees have captured.

  • SLongmont

    The truth is no one knows how
    long we have, or, indeed, how catastrophic the effects of climate change will
    be. We can probably assume, given their history, that scientists on average
    tend to be conservative in their estimates, so they are only 90% certain
    climate change is being caused by human activity, and many shy away from even
    saying what the effects will be beyond there will be increased severe
    weather—droughts, floods, forest fires, etc.—and the oceans will rise within
    quite generous parameters. What are we to conclude? At the very least, we
    should not be taking a dangerous gamble with our future. We should assume the
    effects will be somewhere between costing trillions, displacing millions,
    disrupting our food supply, and increasing the mass extinctions that we are
    already responsible for—up to catastrophic, a run-away greenhouse effect, for
    example. With either scenario, we need to act, and quickly as possible.

    The second point is that it’s
    generally true that legislators respond to what they perceive their constituency
    believes, and overwhelmingly Republican lawmakers have constituents who know
    very little about, or do not believe in, and those that accept its reality tend
    to think its effects will be not worse than the government regulation—including
    increased taxes for any reason—that government will use in a misguided attempt
    to act on something they know little about.

    No matter how we frame it, Republicans
    will not be open to taking climate change into account until they feel pressure
    from their constituents. (George Shultz may be a big supporter and gets it, but
    he’s not running for office.) That’s where CCL can help. We need to work with Republican
    voters to understand and believe in climate change, and offer CCL as a way they
    to do something about it with the least regulation. As our membership becomes
    bipartisan, we can start to convince Republican legislators. Oh one other
    thing: forget fears about them putting the ACA on the trading block; until Republicans
    feel constituent pressure, they will not be interested in a trade.

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