The tyranny of activism-Conclusion: Carbon tax context

July 11, 2016
To radical demands of climate-change protestors in dinosaur costumes, some oil and gas companies respond by supporting a carbon tax. That won't make the issue or the activists go away. Activists want oil and gas companies to go away.

To radical demands of climate-change protestors in dinosaur costumes, some oil and gas companies respond by supporting a carbon tax. That won't make the issue or the activists go away. Activists want oil and gas companies to go away.

Support for a carbon tax demonstrates proper concern about a rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and about possible effects on the climate. It would yield a "carbon price" helpful to investment planning. And it might, some seem to think, mollify activists long enough for temperature measurements further to weaken doomsday warming theories and for economic strain to steer politics away from extreme remedies. Indeed, a carbon tax might represent the best among universally poor options.

Not cap-and-trade

Yet the best that can be said about a carbon tax is that it isn't a cap-and-trade scheme. Cap-and-trade is central planning disguised as capitalism. It mimics markets by allowing trading of emission credits but loses the distinction by allowing officials to control supply of emission rights. When governments manipulate market factors, scoundrels get rich at everyone else's expense. Furthermore, cap-and-trade systems always emerge in partnership with other market distortions, such as mandates and subsidies for politically coddled energy.

A carbon tax would be no better than cap-and-trade at resisting governmental encroachment on energy markets. But it would be more honest. Unlike cap-and-trade, a carbon tax would make clear to energy consumers what governments were doing to them.

At any politically feasible level, though, a carbon tax could be little more than a climatological gesture. Even supporters of fervid precaution admit current proposals are just the first of many costly changes needed to achieve stated temperature goals under standard assumptions. In Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Office says meeting the country's emission targets, aligned with international efforts to limit global average temperature rise after 1990 to 2°C., requires a national carbon price more than triple the highest level in effect or proposed in any of the provinces. A Chatham House study last year warned temperature targets can't be met without shrinking livestock agriculture worldwide.

No one, therefore, should assume that adoption of a carbon tax would preclude other efforts to overhaul human habits with energy and food. Nor should anyone construe a carbon tax as an investment in political reaction against imposed distress. Political reaction presupposes health of democratic institutions. As was argued here last week, climate politics is poisoning those systems. When a US political party considers the criminalization of speech, for example, democracy has fallen ill. On June 25 the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee approved a call for the Department of Justice "to investigate alleged corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies who have reportedly misled shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change."

This triumph of activism fits a troubling pattern. Climate activists persistently misrepresent scientific issues, assert unidimensional certainty about complex and perplexing phenomena, and make democratic mechanisms intolerant of dissent. Many of them are charismatic radicals using climate change to pursue grander goals, including global governance, communism, and universal vegetarianism. For them, climate mitigation is an implement of control.

Honest discussion

Maybe oil and gas companies can advocate for a carbon tax without seeming to confirm an antiscientific, antidemocratic, anticapitalist, and anticonsumer orthodoxy expressly committed to running them out of business. If they choose that option, however, they should frame their arguments within uncompromising boundaries of market freedom, personal liberty, and consumer welfare. And they should demand honest, open discussion about climate science, insisting that activists, however they're dressed, shut up and listen for once.

With or without support for a carbon tax, a refined, toughened stand on climate issues would show commitment to the important work of bringing affordable energy to market, to the integrity of science, and to virtues of democracy. The alternative is energy policy forever set by tyrants dressed as dinosaurs.