Let it never be said I disapprove of everything this Governor does: Today the Transportation Climate Initiative will be unveiled, a multi-state cap-and-trade compact (similar to RGGI for power plants) that is designed to drive down emissions from the very stubborn transportation sector. The idea polls extremely well, as do most policies intended to take on climate change. I am pleased that the public increasingly seems amenable to strong action on climate; but we all know that popular ideas that conflict with powerful special interests tend to wither on the vine, either in our State House or nationally.
The idea is to levy a tax on gasoline on the wholesale level, which will act like a Pigovian carbon tax and discourage the use of gas, while acting as a funding source for transit. I call this good news, broadly speaking; though many in the legislature prefer a progressive tax funding transit. That certainly isn’t wrong, since at this rate the gas tax will start to pinch before transit is ramped up to provide a better alternative.
The anticipated problem with this wholesale gas tax, as with all carbon taxes, is that in order for it to be effective it has to be noticeable. Gas prices, as everyone knows and experiences, are quite volatile already. And though gas prices do have a strangely large effect on what kinds of cars people drive, fuel is not really a very high percentage of the total cost of owning a car. Will the tax be high enough to actually change behavior? Is it politically sustainable? Pigovian taxes on cigarettes are popular because cigarettes are not popular. You could argue that gasoline itself is not popular, but driving still is. Here’s hoping people are willing to take a slight hit.
And then there’s speed, which is of the essence: We must slash emissions “drastically”, according to the IPCC, in order to maintain anything like a civilized world for our kids who are now in school. The IPCC says we need to cut 7.6% per year to stay under the “safe” 1.5°C warming target; famed climatologist Michael Mann has estimated it may have to be more like 15% per year. That’s how long we’ve dithered on this.
Anyway, I have the Governor’s back if he supports a very bold program. I fear that he will look he’s doing something, while actually doing not nearly enough — indulging in Greta Thunberg’s “fairy tales”. The future, the laws of physics, have no mercy and no patience. The clock is our enemy: We’re down 28-3 in the third quarter. Frankly we’ll need a miracle. But people can be amazing.