A Free-Market Energy Blog

Plan B to the Carbon Tax (NYT’s remarkable obituary article)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 28, 2019

“Efforts to sell Republicans on the idea that [a CO2 price] is the most market-friendly approach to the emissions problem have failed miserably, and will continue to fail.”

– Justin Gillis, Forget the Carbon Tax for Now, New York Times, December 27, 2018.

Oh, how the free-market climate realists (science, economics, politics) feel vindicated. The mainstream press has (belatedly) announcing the Carbon Tax politically dead and a distraction for the whole climate debate.

The article by veteran New York Times writer Justin Gillis was one of (at least) three remarkable reality pieces inspired by the year-end UN climate conference (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland. The others were:

In the old days, cold-water pieces in the establishment press were confronted by Joe Romm at Climate Progress (now ThinkProgress). But jostling Joe was silent on all three, at least publicly. There must be too many holes in the dike to plug, given the reinvigorated fossil-fuel era and Trump’s new climate policy.

Gillis’s Forget the Carbon Tax for Now was remarkably subtitled: “It’s politically toxic. There are other ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

Some quotations from this piece follow and should be remembered in the climate debates of 2019.

With a bit of calm upon us, now would be a good time for those of us concerned about climate change to engage in some introspection.

The violent demonstrations that flared this fall in France … were triggered by plans to impose a tax hike on gasoline and diesel fuel at the pump in the name of fighting climate change. Only three years ago, French monuments were bathed in green floodlights to celebrate a global deal negotiated in a Paris suburb to limit emissions; now we are scraping ugly slogans off those monuments.

Days before the French fury boiled over in November, voters in one of most liberal American states, Washington, once again rejected a plan to tax emissions of carbon dioxide in the name of fighting climate change….

[The] climate movement has, I fear, turned this potentially useful tool [of carbon pricing] into a fetish. Discuss any aspect of the emissions problem these days and you will quickly hear somebody say, “A price is the answer,” or equivalent words.

Yet the put-a-price-on-it mantra is proving, in practice, to be a political failure. The Democrats could not get such a policy through Congress even when they had big majorities in the first two years of the Obama administration. Efforts to sell Republicans on the idea that this is the most market-friendly approach to the emissions problem have failed miserably, and will continue to fail.

Proponents of carbon pricing like to point out that variants of the idea have spread all over the world, including to all the countries of the European Union and several American states and Canadian provinces. This is true, but when you look at how these systems have worked in practice, the picture grows murky. Invariably, huge political capital was spent to push through a carbon price too low to spur the rapid reductions in emissions that we need.

Cases that are held up as demonstrating the purported success of carbon pricing, like a tax in British Columbia, mostly prove that if you slap on a modest carbon price, you will get a modest economic response. That people may get used to paying the low tax does not seem to make it much easier, in these jurisdictions, to raise the price to a level where it will really bite.

The basic political problem is that the climate movement still does not have the strength of numbers to overcome entrenched opposition and put in the kind of stiff-and-rising taxes we would need to do the job. The oil companies may claim they want carbon pricing, but a subset of them spent more than $30 million in Washington State to kill the tax proposal there, twice as much money as the proponents were able to raise in support of their intelligent, carefully designed plan.

Damn the oil companies if you will, but they persuaded 56 percent of the voters to take their side, carrying every county in the state but two. What that vote, and the French protests, tell us is that any proposal to raise energy prices is going to run into a buzz saw of opposition, including from working-class people who already feel like they are being mistreated.

The political difficulties are not the only issue with carbon pricing, though. Even in theory, the idea is expected to work in some economic sectors but not in others, yet the fetishists hold it up as the magic answer to all problems….

What are many of us doing instead? Trying to persuade Congress to pass a carbon tax, when the political conditions to achieve that simply do not exist.

One could end the review here, but Gillis’s has a silver bullet (he thinks) in energy efficiency (conservationism). He ends his piece:

Building codes, you’re thinking? Yes, I know they seem boring. I am writing a book with an energy expert, Hal Harvey, who has convinced me that they could hardly be more important. A bad building wastes energy for decades. Yet are climate activists swarming Topeka City Hall, the Colorado statehouse or your local county commission to demand tougher building codes? I wish.

Wish or not, remember the Jevons Paradox. Truly more economical energy in the parts can recapture part or all that demand in the whole. And the new applications for modern energy are endless.

It’s not easy being green.


  1. Thomas Tanton  

    and of course all the reviews paint a picture that carbon taxes fail because of politics, never once mentioning the fact that everywhere there is carbon pricing (or some facsimile, emissions are being reduced more slowly than where no such government intrusion exists. They fail miserably on the ‘best approach’ test. Believe in AGW or not, the only win-win is leave the market alone.


  2. Mark Krebs  

    The lack of knowledge to measure and validate individual country carbon emissions is also an issue. For a good discussion about how much we don’t know:
    “Paris Conundrum: How to Know How Much Carbon Is Being Emitted?”


  3. Mark Krebs  



    ” Yet are climate activists swarming Topeka City Hall, the Colorado statehouse or your local county commission to demand tougher building codes? I wish.”

    Actually building energy codes & standards are another hotbed of climate activism. Google “zero net energy” to see how.


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