Caring for creation and the vulnerable: Considerations for a tax on carbon
By Clara Weybright
Clara Weybright is a Climate Advocacy Intern in the MCC U.S. Washington Office, through the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions.
Climate change affects all of us around the world, but especially the most socially and economically vulnerable. Even as many of us grieve for the damage we have done to our planet and to each other and make changes to our personal behavior, we must also seek policy changes to address the impacts of climate change.
Carbon pricing has been proposed as one possible way to mitigate the carbon emissions that cause climate change. Carbon pricing schemes include a carbon tax and various “cap and trade” plans.
Carbon pricing puts a tax or fee on fuels that emit carbon, such as coal, oil and gas, so that people will choose to use less of these fuels and move to more renewable sources of energy. The money collected from the tax may be used in a variety of ways. Many proposals simply return the funds to households through tax rebates or other methods. Some proposals direct a portion of the funds toward programs to help communities in the U.S. and globally respond to the adverse effects of climate change.
Whenever a policy attempts to address an issue as multifaceted as climate change, however, solutions quickly become complex. In evaluating proposed policies, we must take care to avoid unintended consequences that can harm already-vulnerable communities.
1 John 3:17 reminds us, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” If not designed carefully, a carbon tax could have a disproportionate impact on already-marginalized people, including low-income households, undocumented immigrants, indigenous communities, rural communities and workers in fossil fuel jobs (such as coal miners).
While a carbon tax may serve to motivate middle- and upper-class households to move towards renewable energy sources and more efficient appliances, lower income households will not be able to adapt as quickly. Additionally, many low-income households are left out of federal assistance programs such as food stamps and disability assistance and, as a result, might not be eligible to receive the rebates some carbon pricing schemes propose. At the same time, these households will have to pay higher prices for gas and heating oil, leaving them to shoulder a heavy burden.
Another concern regarding some carbon pricing proposals revolves around the ways in which they fail to properly care for creation. Some proposals call for a rollback of environmental regulations in exchange for a carbon tax. Bedrock laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act protect creation and human health and must not be traded for any carbon pricing strategy. A carbon tax should be part of a larger package of laws working together to protect people and the environment.
While this is a complex issue, you can reach out to your elected officials and share a simple message of concern for both the impacts of climate change and carbon pricing proposals on the most vulnerable. Any carbon pricing proposal should fulfill our mandate to care for the environment while also acknowledging the needs of those who are most marginalized in our society.