Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Every Now and Then, Tom Friedman Gets It Right

There's something about the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that can get my back up. At times he seems really patronizing, talking down to the wee folk. Once in a while, however, Tom gets something dead on and then - well, he's tolerable. This time it's his explanation of why the West ought to forget about cap and trade regimes and go for a straight forward carbon tax. Are you listening Iggy?

Representative John B. Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has circulated a draft bill that would impose “a per-unit tax on the carbon-dioxide content of fossil fuels, beginning at a rate of $15 per metric ton of CO2 and increasing by $10 each year.” The bill sets a goal, rather than a cap, on emissions at 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, and if the goal for the first five years is not met, the tax automatically increases by an additional $5 per metric ton. The bill implements a fee on carbon-intensive imports, as well, to press China to follow suit. Larson would use most of the income to reduce people’s payroll taxes: We tax your carbon sins and un-tax your payroll wins.

People get that — and simplicity matters. Americans will be willing to pay a tax for their children to be less threatened, breathe cleaner air and live in a more sustainable world with a stronger America. They are much less likely to support a firm in London trading offsets from an electric bill in Boston with a derivatives firm in New York in order to help fund an aluminum smelter in Beijing, which is what cap-and-trade is all about. People won’t support what they can’t explain.

...Climate change is a real threat to a healthy planet Earth — the only home we have. But because the worst effects are in the future, many Americans have more immediate concerns. That is why our energy policy should be focused around “American renewal,” not mitigating climate change.

We need a price on carbon because it will stimulate massive innovation in the next great global industry — E.T. — energy technology. In a warming world with huge population growth, clean power systems are going to be in huge demand. The scientific research and innovation needed for America to dominate E.T. the way it did I.T. could be the foundation for a second American industrial revolution, plus it would tip the whole planet onto a greener path. So American economic renewal is the goal, but mitigating climate change would be the great byproduct.

Now our supposedly enlightened Liberal Leader runs like a scalded cat at the mention of carbon taxes. He writes it off with facile excuses including the rank sophistry about how Canadians made a mature, informed decision to reject carbon taxes in the last election. Mr. Ignatieff is lying.

There was no mature, informed decision on carbon taxes in the last election. You can fault Mr. Dion for that. Mr. Dion stupidly (yes, stupidly) chose to make carbon taxes the cornerstone of the Liberal election platform. That was about as dumb an idea as any Liberal has sprung in memory. No cash-strapped opposition party can sell a policy of that magnitude, especially not in a general election. The Green Shift moniker was confusing and totally vulnerable to attack ads from both the Tories and the oh so concerned NDP. Dion exposed the policy before he unveiled it and his opponents put the boots to it before he was even prepared to try to explain it. As an electoral platform it was as stupid as mud.

Selling the public on the merits of carbon taxes is a chore that only a government can tackle. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to get the requisite information to the public, to earn their support. In the run-up to the last election the Canadian public were never given a decent chance to make an informed, mature decision on carbon taxes. They were dizzy from being spun silly.

Mr. Dion's foolishness does not excuse Mr. Ignatieff's crass and misleading dismissal of what, as Friedman rightly points out, is probably the only effective means of confronting the existential threat of global warming. This is a problem that needs to be addressed now. We need a leader who understands that and is ready to act. Unfortunately neither the Libs nor the Tories have anyone of that stature right now.

Mr. Ignatieff needs to learn there's more to being a leader than getting elected prime minister. Mr. Harper has shown that.


Fish said...

Mound, take it easy on poor old Dion!

I admire him for making the carbon tax a cornerstone of his campaign, naive as it may have been.

How often do we hear about people complaining that politicians say one thing during their campaign and then do another once they're elected?

For once a politician actually came out and said what he was going to do... for which he was crucified.

I think it would be totally immoral to implement such a program without a proper mandate from the people, so waiting until he has formed the government to unveil his plan wasn't really much of an option for Dion.

Whether they understood it or not, voters rejected the Green Shift. There's nothing stopping us from putting it to them again, except once people have made up their minds, it can be difficult to get them to see things your way.

LeDaro said...

Fish, I like Dion too but it was a bad move. I said right away that he would take horrible beating over the carbon tax. You should consider readind these two post of mine

It is not misleading during an election if he had not talked about carbon tax. There was a need for extensive public education and raising awareness which a government can do because it has resources. After you get enough following then you unveil the policy. There is nothing dishonest about it.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sorry Fish but you're dead wrong on this one. This was an enormously critical initiative. Dion had neither the time or the money to properly introduce it to the Canadian public and build their support for it. Worse, he let the platform slip two weeks before he was ready to unveil it. I heard the scathing Tory attack ads on the radio before then. Harper and Layton turned this into so much electoral roadkill before Dion even opened his mouth.

There are two reasons Ignatieff won't be endorsing a carbon tax (he's already publicly rejected the idea as almost silly). One is that Dion damaged the concept, the other is that he doesn't have a spine.

Fish said...

Well gentelmen, if I am "dead wrong" on this one, it will be neither the first nor the last time. I'm not convinced just yet though.

I've always been a little bit uneasy about public information campaigns. Yes, the government does have both a right and an obligation to inform the public about what it is doing, but this can be used as camouflage for partisan ads.

Over here in Ontario, old Mike the knife Harris used to use them regularly whenever he was about to introduce controversial measures. The ads were completely biased, and he was criticized for it.

Now even if Dion had not introduced the Green Shift, he still would have faced a lot of pressure from the Tories to publicly declare that he was not going to introduce a carbon tax (as he had already done during the leadership race). If he refused to do so, it would appear that he had a hidden agenda, if he did so and then did the exact opposite once in office it would be the GST all over again!

I do not doubt that it would have been more politically expedient to sweep the Green Shift under the rug under after he was elected, I'm just not sure it would have been the most ethical option.

The Mound of Sound said...

Fish, what's remotely ethical about bungling one of the most important initiatives for Canada in the 21st century. Policies like this are justifiable, easily defensible, if you have a genuinely informed public. You can't begin to create those conditions in the midst of an election campaign. Can't be done. Dion totally screwed it up and gave Iggy an easy out in the process.