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What's the good of an effective carbon tax if it's politically impossible to implement?

Placards "Put a price on carbon" and "Climate change is real," at the People's Climate March 2017. Photo: Edward Kimmel/Wikimedia Commons

Recent political developments in France and Alberta, though quite different in tone, suggest carbon taxes may not be a viable way to address climate change -- leastways not without reaching an unlikely consensus that must be imposed.

You may not believe me yet, but you can count on it, politicians on the right, left and centre are all paying attention to the problems encountered by carbon taxes and their advocates.

I hate to say it, too, because I do believe the academic economists who keep telling us that carbon taxes are the most cost-effective way to limit carbon outputs in a market economy. But it is also true that academics live in the proverbial ivory tower when it comes to the politics of the street, and carbon taxes are a vivid example of this phenomenon.

So I'm starting to believe the problem is that carbon taxes are simply no longer politically viable, if they ever were, and so we will have to move on and find other ways if we are to save the planet.

Some of those ways may involve markets too, and they will likely be considerably more brutal to Albertans than the effect of building social licence by imposing a carbon tax would have been. If this turns out to be so, don't expect too much sympathy when we complain about it.

Of course, carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes like the successful one pushed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1990, are an invention of the right, with its ideological faith that the market is the solution to everything. Except, of course, when it isn't, as in the case of low-quality heavy crude that fails to fetch a price high enough to sustain extraction operations.

But as has been noted in this space before, carbon taxes have become the Obamacare of Canada, a market-fundamentalist idea cynically abandoned by the right once it had been adopted by centre-left parties. Meanwhile, in the same time frame, climate-change denial became a core doctrine of both U.S. Republicans and the Conservative Party of Canada, as well as various CPC provincial chapters.

So, to France and its roiling yellow vest protests, so reminiscent of 1968 …

You can't blame French working people for going into the streets to protest rising fuel prices. After all, the structure of the society they live in requires significant fuel expenditures to live and work by those not wealthy enough to reside in the hearts of the country's great cities.

But what right-wing anti-carbon-tax agitators in Canada seem to have missed, or wilfully ignored, as they gleefully threaten Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government with the same violence here is that the French street protests of the past few days are about much more than one unpopular tax.

In fact, the complaints of the yellow-jacketed protesters encompass the entire traditional left-wing indictment of the neoliberal austerity program the Canadian right advocates -- creeping privatization of health care, weakened trade unions, pension cuts, skyrocketing post-secondary tuition, less secure jobs, class-based exams, lousy wages, tax-avoidance schemes for the wealthy, and all the rest.

As radical former British Parliamentarian George Galloway observed in a TV interview, "this is a revolt against austerity, a revolt of people who did not do the crime, and don't want to do the time!"

Moreover, the French now in the streets, Galloway warned, "are not 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys,'" as they were portrayed by Americans when they didn't enthusiastically embrace Junior Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion. That much should be obvious by watching video of the riots.

So the irresponsible Canadian anti-tax Astroturfers now advocating the French riposte to Canada's modest carbon taxes should brace themselves for the full-meal deal if their agitation for violence pans out. They may find it a dish not entirely to their taste.

Still, it has been duly noted, high taxes and high costs for essentials -- be they bread in 1789 or petrol in 2018 -- are clearly shown by history to be an excellent way to get the working classes into the streets, call them sans-culottes or gilets jaunes, and not just in France.

The Alberta experience is milder, mainly because the NDP's carbon tax is so much less onerous than the one French President Emmanuel Macron has now been compelled by the masses to drop.

Indeed, the carbon levy imposed by Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government is so small it is doubtful it can have a meaningful effect. It's insignificant enough that Alberta's conservative politicians must lie with abandon about how much it will cost in order to get their base riled up.

But this only shows that whatever the efficacy of carbon taxes might be as a policy tool if only they could be imposed, carbon levies that are highly transparent (which they must be to work) are not a viable policy tool even when they are set too low to have meaningful effect.

So defending carbon tax regimes by saying they would work if they were allowed to work is like saying there would be no need for police or welfare if we could all just be persuaded to share and share alike. It ain't gonna happen!

Promising tax rebate cheques in a year's time, by the way, is a small comfort if you can't afford to give your kids supper tonight -- or even if you just fear you might not be able to because some now reformed "green conservative" is lying to you about it. It's the wealthy, not the poor, who make sure they've filed their tax paperwork every year.

Whether the reaction in Canada will be enough to get Trudeau or Notley to change course remains to be seen. I imagine strategists from both parties are carefully examining the auguries right now.

The result in France, as the Wall Street Journal explained it, is that the riots have given President Macron "the first major setback in his push to overhaul the French economy." (Emphasis added.)

As usual, the international business press only wants to tell part of the story. Macron has certainly sacrificed his green tax on fuel. There is little doubt he has done so to save the rest of his planned program of neoliberal depredation. That is why the protests may well continue, and even grow, well past Canada's supposed tax watchdogs' comfort zone.

Well, Vive la France!

If the Canadian right has achieved anything with its bait-and-switch tactic on carbon taxes, I expect it is that politicians elected in regions of the country where there is a high level of concern about the fate of the environment will simply forget about trying accommodate the wishes of voters in resource-dependent, Conservative-voting regions like Alberta.

They may well say: No social licence? No problem. No pipelines!

As the impacts of climate change become more obvious, voters in afflicted regions will commit themselves fully to policies that block pipelines and attempt consciously to turn Alberta's oilsands into a truly stranded asset until the clock runs out on the age of fossil fuel.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.  

Photo: Edward Kimmel/Wikimedia Commons

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