Tax the Climate Criminals, 
not Carbon Footprints

A gilets jaunes demonstrator waits at the end point of a solidarity march in Paris led by unionists on February 5, 2019. The back of the vest reads, “We live on the same planet, but not in the same world. Let’s save the earth together.” Photo: Colin Kinniburgh ]

If you feel guilty about your carbon footprint (the amount of energy you consume that adds to greenhouse emissions) and you’re not in the 1%, you’re buying into a false ideology. We hear too often that the responsibility for climate change rests with all of us. We all have “carbon footprints” and must share the costs of climate solutions.

As socialists, we must reject this ideology. The majority of society (that is, the working class) might generate emissions attached to our severely constrained consumption choices, but the real power, and responsibility, lies with capitalists who own and control the production of those commodities for profit. The capitalist class might also live lavish carbon-intensive “lifestyles”—think private jets—but the wealth funding their consumption comes from the exploitation of labor and nature for profit.

Thus, the only climate “sacrifice” must be shouldered by the rich who profit from carbon-based capitalism. Yet elite policy wonks and politicians often think a carbon tax is the “sensible” approach to climate policy. As recently as January 2019, a group of former Federal Reserve chairs and economists signed a joint statement calling a carbon tax “the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.” Although the logic of such proposals aims to send “price signals” about the “cost” of emissions, the French gilets jaunes or “yellow vests” movement shows how ordinary people respond to “price signals” that place the burden of climate solutions on the working class.

France’s carbon tax was a regressive one combined with tax cuts for the rich. One could conceivably design a progressive carbon tax targeting only the corporate polluters, but these companies could then pass on such costs to households. Because we all use carbon, this allows the climate-denial Right to claim the policy is a “tax” on working-class lives.

A socialist slogan for climate politics could be “Don’t tax molecules, tax the rich!” Carbon dioxide has no class interest. Climate politics should not be about tweaking price signals. It should be about a basic principle: We need to tax them to fund us. The striking teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma called for higher taxes on the fossil fuel industry to fund better education. Similarly, Bernie Sanders called for a tax on Wall Street to fund free public college for All.

A climate policy based on taxing the rich in general can be part of a larger politics of redistribution that delivers benefits to the working class through decarbonization. A Green New Deal could be based on a federal job guarantee, a public sector-led transition to carbon-free energy, and “green” public housing. Furthermore, just as Medicare for All is a wildly popular proposal based on the decommodification of a basic social need, we could organize around an “energy for all” program.

The key is to make sure that this energy transition is not controlled by capitalists seeking profit. Socialists must argue that the future of our planet is too important to be left to the private sector. But we first need to understand that capitalists, not our airplane ticket to visit our grandparents, got us into this mess in the first place.

[MORE: A report by Colin Kinniburgh on the gilets jaunes in France.]