Ecosocialism resolution :debate on carbon taxes

Two points of view

The issue of carbon taxes or fee- and-dividend (James Hansen’s proposal) is being very much discussed in the ecological left and the Fourth International. We briefly present here two different views on the issue, leaving the debate open for the moment.

Point of view 1.

Make the polluters pay.

The unavoidable reality is that as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy available they are going to be used. The most effective way to cut carbon emissions quickly—which is crucial— is by making fossil fuels much more expensive than renewables by a means that is socially just, economically redistributive, and capable of commanding popular support, and in the two or three decades that remain to us. In other words an exit strategy from fossil fuel. The principles are: make the polluter pay: keep the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole.

One proposal on these lines is James Hansen’s fee and dividend proposition. It provides a high impact measure that can bring about big reduction in fossil fuel usage and emissions, in a short period of time, and on the socially progressive basis of a major transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor— directly into the individual bank accounts of the population—as an incentive to drive it forward. It has the potential to mobilise the kind of mass popular support that would be necessary for the kind of rapid change that is needed. It also has the advantage over the alternatives—of a government imposed cap or fuel rationing—in that it would reduce production by reducing demand in a way that would be popular and acceptable.

It would need, as Hansen argues, to go alongside a crash programme of renewable energy production to meet the demand that his incentives would create. It would also need to go alongside a major programme of energy conservation, a big reduction in the use of the internal combustion engine, the abolition of factory farming and a big reduction in meat consumption.

I am not insisting on Hansen but on the principle of a big impact idea with fast results. There may well be other such proposals—but let’s start the discussion.

Point of view 2.

Challenge the logic of accumulation

According to neo-liberalism, the climate could be saved (i) without challenging the capitalist accumulation, (ii) without binding regulation, (iii) without collective practices generating new values, (iv) by giving a price inciting carbon companies and consumers to change their habits. The "fee and dividend" is a social variant of this strategy.

Hansen says that his proposal is consensual: it gives purchasing power, stimulates growth and requires no regulation. So, fee-and-dividend would be the only realistic answer to the emergency. On the contrary, the climate emergency requires more regulation and attacking the logic of capitalist growth. As for social justice in the transition, 1) it is not limited to "purchasing power" - it requires collective investment (conversion plans, public transport, insulation-renovation, regional planning, ...); 2 °) it must be global - the protectionism proposed by Hansen violates the principle of differentiated responsibilities of North and South.

Hansen proposes a tax growing to $ 115 / tCO2 in ten years. On this basis, it projects a reduction in US emissions of the same order (30%) as is expected from the regulation measures of the Clean Power Plan (26 to 28%). This tax of $ 115 / tCO2 would increase the price of gasoline by $ 1 / gallon in ten years. In comparison, a recent increase of $ 1.20 / gallon has reduced US emissions by ... 3%.

The "fee and dividend" is not the axis of an exit strategy in social justice. Some tax claims are legitimate (on kerosene, for example), but the essential is elsewhere. There is no miracle recipe: we can not avoid a strategy confronting the capitalist dynamic of accumulation with mobilizing demands, uniting the social and the environmental (see 2.4.).

This ecosocialist strategy is concrete, but different from that of Hansen. The first focuses on the convergence of the struggles of the exploited and oppressed, the second on the illusory hope of a green capitalism.

Fourth International