6 Responses

  1. Keith McNeill May 18, 2014 at 8:52 pm |

    Anders Ekeland is correct that James Hansen’s fee-and-dividend proposal must be front and center in any plan to control global warming.

    It is a good proposal but the big question is: how to get there?

    In order to be effective, any carbon tax must be global in nature. This would in turn imply that the distribution of dividends also must be global.

    I have posted a petition on Care2 that calls for a worldwide referendum on a global carbon tax modelled after Hansen’s proposal. The URL of the petition is http://www.thepetitionsite.com/286/384/042/petition-for-a-referendum-on-a-global-carbon-tax/

  2. Peter Gose May 10, 2014 at 4:17 pm |

    Hansen’s proposal has an aura of concreteness and realism about it, but I’m not sure it holds up under close scrutiny. Yes, any rise in royalties and wealth redistribution would be entirely welcome, but let’s not underestimate the level of political organizing it would take to seriously propose, let alone win, these “non-reformist reforms.” We are talking about a huge blow to capital, one that it would fight with utter ferocity. You can’t build the commitment needed to win that kind of struggle by asking people if they are in favour of free money. It won’t seem realistic at all given the economic mayhem capital would unleash. Like it or not, there’s no escaping the need for old-school political education and organizing. We can’t get there through the depoliticizing logic of the welfare state or the neoliberal tax-break.

  3. Simon Butler May 9, 2014 at 5:46 am |

    A few points from me that I hope will add to the discussion. It’s wise to draw a distinction between the progressive and regressive kinds of carbon taxes. There is a big difference between British Columbia’s gasoline tax or London’s congestion tax (which apply equally to pensioners and millionaires alike) and James Hansen’s ‘fee & dividend’ proposal. Of course we’ve probably all met a few dogmatic socialists who seem to think politics is something best learned by rote, though I’d also say those ecosocialists who have spoken out against regressive green taxation measures have shown pretty healthy political instincts.

    The value in Anders Ekeland’s piece is that it’s most concerned with provoking discussion about what ecosocialists should campaign for, not just what they stand against. In particular, he urges ecosocialists to engage with and campaign for Hansen’s fee and dividend plan, or at least versions of it.

    Hansen’s tax is different. It would be levied on the extraction or import of fossil fuels. All proceeds would be given back to the public in monthly installments, with extra payments awarded for each dependent child. Most people would be financially better off. On principle it’s hard to fault the proposal. Not too many ecosocialists would balk at mining giants and energy firms paying a lot more tax. I certainly don’t.

    In Australia, though I assume this is hardly unique, we already have taxes on extraction (called ‘royalties’) and import (tariffs). Hansen’s proposal here would translate into setting fossil fuel royalties and tariffs much, much higher. Some of the proceeds could be also be spent in replacing polluting industries with clean ones, although this depart from Hansen’s preference to award all proceeds to individual families.

    But I think any such tax measure could play at best a secondary, subsidiary role and we should emphasise this aspect of it. So I’m not so convinced that Hansen’s plan is such a good starting point for an “exit strategy” – a transition to a low carbon society. I’m doubtful that a specific tax policy could play a big role in animating a mass climate movement. I could be wrong about this. But it I think it might be unprecedented anywhere.

    Also higher prices for fossil fuels won’t necessarily lead towards transition. This applies especially to the energy industry, which as a “natural monopoly” is very expensive & difficult for new competitors to enter. It’s not feasible for changed consumer patterns to lead the transition. Nor should be bank on private capital responding to even very stiff economic incentives in rational ways. The economic & social power of the fossil fuel/mining complex – of which global banking & finance is very much intertwined – is a compelling factor here. Even if it is less profitable for capitalism as a whole, these interests are potentially powerful enough to force less powerful industries and working people to eat the higher energy costs for an extended period while they fight to maintain their profits & the value of their assets. Given the huge amounts already invested in fossil fuel infrastructure, we’d be wrong to expect a rapid, transformative shift in energy even with a $115 per tonne carbon tax.

    I’d rank the demand for public investment in green infrastructure as a far more potent & strategic thing to emphasise, above the fee & dividend or similar progressive carbon tax proposals. First, it poses a response to the climate dilemma that matches the short timeframes the climate science allows us. A big rollout of renewable energy is an alternative way of bringing the costs down fast, due to better economies of scale. Because it emphasises replacing polluting technology with clean industries, it’s a direct way of bringing emissions down. Tax measures are indirect, hence less predictable. Public investment runs counter to the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, but it accords with popular conceptions of public sector for the public good. A public investment drive would be job rich – the prospect of secure, well paid public employment could be more a more popular issue than a monthly climate cheque. Finally, public investment also satisfies the issue that Anders ended his article with (and something I agree is vital): the need for radicals to challenge capitalism concretely, not just abstractly. Indeed, public investment ties in well with some of the visionary research from groups like Beyond Zero Emissions in Australia https://bze.org.au/ or the Solutions Project in the US http://thesolutionsproject.org/infographic/

    Now I can anticipate a response something along the lines of: “So where is all the money for your big-spending public investment ideas going to come from. Couldn’t Hansen’s fee & dividend tax on polluters help pay for all this public investment?” My answer is yes … but. Progressive taxes like Hansen’s could definitely play a part, but it’s the direct measures that are most essential. And there are other options to fund it too. Governments can redirect wasteful expenditure. They can undertake progressive income taxation or raise taxes on profits. But most importantly, they can finance a rollout of renewables without delay in the same way they finance other infrastructure projects: through public borrowing. Because renewable energy does away with fuel costs, any such investment in a clean energy system will pay off over time, though this militates against the need for capitalists to get a short-term return on their investment.

    Of course, governments are not doing that. The reasons *why* they are not doing that raises all the questions about who holds political power in our society and who else should hold it instead. One of the roles for ecosocialists is to make those links explicit to wider circles.

    So I’d caution that making dirty energy more expensive really can’t be the measure that can transform energy systems rapidly, and I have little confidence it will be the measure that will spark wider climate mobilisation. We should definitely back higher subsidies for things like clean energy and energy efficiency measures. They can play an important role. But the game-changers for the energy transition will be the things that require very big investments upfront: big solar plant and wind farms, upgraded/efficient transmission grids, electrified urban & inter-urban public transport systems etc. To get these things in the relatively short time that climate science dictates we’ll need big public investment. That is, regulation trumps taxation. This in turn assumes a climate movement strong enough to make any government that refuses to do this un-electable.

    Lastly, I should clarify something about the speech of mine that Anders criticised in his article. It was the text of a speech I gave at Australia’s Climate Summit last year. The NGO-led campaign in favour of Australia’s emissions trading scheme used the slogan “Say Yes to a price on carbon pollution” in its TV ads and national demonstrations. My talk was about why Australian climate activists should end their support for the scheme. Hence I started the talk by saying “we should stop saying ‘yes’ to a price on carbon” and said later on that “we should say ‘no’ to a price on carbon”. While my audience would have understood I was referring specifically to Australia’s emission trading scheme, I can appreciate this wouldn’t be clear to readers in other countries. But of course I agree that removing public subsidies to fossil fuels would increase their price, which is no bad outcome as far as it goes.

  4. Hal Birkelnad May 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm |

    James Hansen’s Fee and dividend proposal is not sufficient to avert climate havoc, and it implies no international redistribution or funding of green energy and climate adaption in poor countries.

    However, as there are no visible sign of an international strong popular movement able to force the necessary change, fee and dividend is the very best fundament for a fossil exit strategy. It offers a redistribution to the poor and climate friendly people, handing the main part of the bill to those burning most carbon, who are able to pay for it.

    The visual redistribution would even greatly stimulate climate awareness in the public.

    But we have to fight for 100% dividend, in accordance with Hansens’s proposal. Governments can’t be trusted. This should be point no 1 in the Left’s climate action plan.

  5. Terry Moore May 8, 2014 at 9:45 am |

    This is an important discussion. There is an urgent need to build the kind of mass climate justice movement capable of forcing a transition off fossil fuels before runaway climate change becomes inevitable. To build such a movement we need to have clear demands and goals that entice large numbers of people to join the movement.

    Once people have been convinced human-caused global warming is happening, that it’s rooted in fossil fuel dependency and that the resulting climate change constitutes a real and present danger, the first question asked is always “what can I/we do?”

    We need some clear responses to this question to have any hope of encouraging people to become engaged. In a capitalist society people know from direct personal experience that there is a relationship between prices and behaviour. A progressively higher price on carbon would discourage some behaviours and encourage others – provided there are some clear practical alternatives readily at hand.

    Hansen’s fee and dividend proposal is not a complete solution, of course, but the fight to achieve it has the potential to help build the movement and, if coupled with other proposals for collective measures to decarbonize the economy, could help build the renewable energy sector and a constituency for further environmentally progressive measures at the same time.

    My experience in the trade union movement has taught me that a “we can’t change anything until we change everything” orientation is not a winning organizing strategy. We need to articulate and organize to achieve some real practical interim goals that will make a positive difference for people. Those goals need to be useful in and of themselves and build a basis for further progressive demands.

    Hansen’s fee and dividend proposal has some real progressive redistributional aspects to it that ought to make it attractive to working people convinced of the need to make a transition off fossil fuels. Clearly, it is not a complete solution and should not be promoted as such.

    We used to talk about “non-reformist reforms” as a way to build a movement for significant change while laying the ground work for more radical changes in the process. Hansen’s fee and dividend proposal should be viewed in that light.

  6. Simon Butler May 5, 2014 at 11:01 pm |

    Thanks to Anders Ekeland for a very thoughtful article. I intend to comment in more detail soon. In the meantime here’s an article of mine from a few years ago that briefly discusses Hansen’s fee & dividend proposal & concludes any such scheme could only be a subsidiary “part of a wider plan for a public program to quickly decarbonise our economy — not as an alternative to it.” https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/43410

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