Saturday, May 17, 2008

Kinsella Vs. The Scientist

Kinsella's recent post on Dion's carbon tax proposal has made more than a few waves. You can find it here. I thought I would juxtapose it with an analysis by Canadian climate scientist Simon Donner (click on link for the entire piece):

Is there a better time to redirect federal tax code to stress fuels, rather than income? The signals are all pointing in that direction. Cars are outselling trucks and SUVs for the first time in years. Goldman Sachs reported this week that oil could reach $150 to $200 a barrel. Public transit usage is on the rise. A carbon tax on transportation and heating fuels would only further nudge our economy towards higher energy efficiency and lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Most importantly, even if 100% revenue neutral the tax will allow the government the political room to direct revenues to programs to further invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy and new technologies.

As for the politics: evidence from the US primaries, where Hillary Clinton's obvious pandering over a gas tax holiday appears to have sunk what was left of her presidential campaign, [suggests] that people do appreciate honest on the complex issues of today. Dion is in the strange position of being seen by Canadians as "weak, uninspiring and unintelligible" but still more likable than PM Stephen Harper. Voters across the spectrum might just respect Dion more for making seemingly risky and groundbreaking political move of pushing for a carbon tax.

I can't say that reading Warren's piece didn't stoke some doubts in me. His profession, after all, is political strategy, so if he says an idea is crap you have to give the opinion some weight. But I wonder if he isn't working from a political play book that's a few years out of date. For example, I don't believe for one minute that talking environmental issues tags you as an lefty urbanite. We can all see what's happening to our arctic, and I think Canadians are beginning to understand this as a security issue (maybe our most important security issue), not just a matter of saving a few cute polar bears.

Furthermore, I rather think the cry of "too complex for the Canadian people" lets people like Warren off the hook as strategists. If a political party is developing an agricultural policy, for example, everyone involved in the production of that policy (from wonks to communicators) is expected to know enough about it to push the policy and counter the attacks. AGW as a political issue, though, is genuinely new, and I have a feeling alot of the resistance to the Carbon Tax proposal is about teaching old dogs new tricks. Its, like, another thing to learn... Well, tough nuts. From this day forward political types are going to have to start boning up on Carbon Markets and cloud feedbacks, and will be expected to know as much about that as they do about the history of The Wheat Board (or whatever). Simply accepting the Tory political spin that this will drive up fuel prices, as Warren does in spite of the fact that all Dion's pronouncements on the matter have made clear that the tax will not apply to gasoline, doesn't cut it. Its lazy. Its giving up before the fight has begun.

And just to rephrase Mr. Donner's last bit: we've got all sorts of people within the Liberal Party (Warren among them) saying "The party can't run away forever! Let's got to an election campaign!", but without really say much about what the Libs positive platform is supposed to be. Now that some (fairly bold) policy is starting to emerge, they're running away from the policy! Well, what then is the policy to be? We'll bring gas prices down? Nobody will believe that, and it can't be done! Or how about promising daycare for all? But, how many times have they done that already?

11 comments:

calgarygrit said...

I don't think there's any contradiction between what Warren says and what the experts say. It's hard to argue that the carbon tax isn't very sound policy and, looking at WK's last two paragraphs he's not disputing that. He's instead looking at it from a political perspective and saying it's not an issue to run on.

The only part of Warren's post I take issue with is where he describes it as "un-Liberal" because it's unfair to low income Canadians...well, that's all dependent on how you spend the income raised from it. Presumably richer people have higher carbon consumption, so as long as the money is spent in a way that doesn't favour the rich, the net benefit would be positive for low income Canadians.

jaybird said...

The Canadian public and economy cannot handle a significant rise in energy costs. It will cripple the Ontario and QC economies, it will leave way too many Canadians cold in winter and hungry all year long. We don't have the public transit infrastructure or the urban planning to ensure that the poor and working Canadians have workable transit options. We no longer have the rail infrastructure to 'shift' away from truck transport for goods, commodities and transportation.

That is why a 'revenue neutral' carbon tax will not work right now. The NDP supports a cap and trade system (www.ndp.ca) that will penalize big polluters AND provide incentive for greening the resource and industrial base of our economy. It will also generate funds so that the government can help Canadians at work and at home do our part to save the environment. In fact, Norway recently switched from a carbon tax to a cap and trade system because it would work better.

If the average Canadian finds going green too economically painful to be sustainable then they will have no choice but to turn to the one party that doesn't give a shit about the environment and the Cons will welcome them with open arms.

calgary - I would imagine from your post you are not low income. Even if quarterly carbon tax rebate checks are sent to low income/working canadians it won't be much help. Canadians will have to pay the carbon tax on a daily basis not quarterly. They will feel the pain of higher gas, heating and food costs and difficult choices will have to be made (go hungry pay heat) while they are waiting for the cheque. A lot of working Canadians don't have financial wiggle room so even though on the surface they have a nice home and car and they have a job it wouldn't take much to push them over the economic edge (see credit crunch south of border).

That is why the NDP is supporting a comprehensive environmental plan uses sticks on the corporate polluters (they can handle it) and carrots for those (corps and public) for making the right environmental choices.

jaybird said...

bigcity: your right the LPC has perennial promised national child care and NEVER delivered it. Shouldn't that make progressives (whether enviro or women focused) question any progressive commitment made by the LPC.

You have proven the point I have made repeatedly on the liblogs. The LPC is not a party of progressives. It is a party with a progressive rump. It talks the talk but rarely walks the walk. In large part our central banking, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, and universal Medicare are thanks to the pressure exerted by the NDP on LPC minority governments.

Steve V said...

Just a quick clarification, Dion is more "likeable" than Harper, and while he is considered "uninspiring", Harper actually has a worse rating on that score.

Anonymous said...

"The time has come to put a price on waste and pollution. The time has come to do what’s right, not what’s easy."

This isn't rocket science - why are so many people trying so hard to make it more complicated than it is?

If Canadians still don't get that the world is facing a crisis of massive proportions - species extinction, food shortages, violent weather, pollution - then the problem isn't with the message, it's with an audience that's too preoccupied with their own personal lives to think about doing what's right, not what's easy.

When J. F. Kennedy challenged Americans in 1961 to, 'ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country', nobody was confused about what he meant. They didn't spend a lot of time and effort debating all the possibilities. They got it - it's time to rise to the challenge.

Ti-Guy said...

I sometimes wonder if Warren Kinsella isn't manic depressive. But anyway, this:

"Well, what then is the policy to be? We'll bring gas prices down? Nobody will believe that, and it can't be done! Or how about promising daycare for all? But, how many times have they done that already?"

...is something the Liberals need to understand quite carefully, as it's quite clear the Canadian public can become very easily-informed about how the promise of good governance is not going to be enough to establish credibility.

Something that's taken the Conservatives at least two years (and I'm being charitable here) to start learning, I might add.

jaybird said...

I agree that carbon should be taxed. The issue is how and who and when.

The NDP says - big polluters and the LPC is saying consumers (at least from what I gather from all the chat of the potential plan - Dion, nice strategy btw).

am: you mention JFK and the Apollo program. I think you are right we need that kind of government commitment and support. So how do we find that money with a revenue neutral carbon tax? The CPC (with an assist from the LPC)is successfully re-tooling the federal government to limit its capacity to generate revenue. Let's not even mention Dion's talk of massive corporate tax cuts.

So again where does the fed govt come up with the cash to help fund massive increase of public transit, or renewal of our rail infrastructure so that it can handle bullet commuter trains? Show me where the cash for more R&D for hydrogen or carbon-neutral energy will come from?

Industry alone will not take these significant economic risks in a market that is so volatile and which has become exclusively focused on quick shareholder profit over long term growth and investment.

Anonymous said...

jaybird,
I don't have the answers - I doubt that anyone has. The only things I am clear about are that there is no 'perfect' solution that everyone will agree to, and that we can't afford to pretend that feel-good 'aspirational targets' are going to do anything other than convince everyone that there's no need for us to do anything because the gov. has things under control, which they clearly do not, and do not intend to.

It's too late now to be debating whether or not to do what needs to be done; even if we don't have all the details worked out, at least let's get started on something constructive. The risk of making a wrong choice about what to do and how to do it is nothing compared to the risk of doing nothing until everyone has agreed on the right course of action.

Kennedy wasn't trying to reassure Americans that they didn't need to worry about the threats facing them at the time - he was telling them that times were tough and going to get tougher, so it's time for them to stand up and be counted. The message for Canadians must be a challenge to them to decide if they're prepared to make some serious sacrifices right now, or face much more serious problems a few years down the road that will make the current ones seem trivial. It's not a 'feel-good' message - it's a challenge to change the way we think and live, right here, right now. I don't think Canadians will have a hard time understanding it. The question is, will they agree - if not, then endless debates about what to do and how to do it are not going to matter.

bigcitylib said...

Jaybird,

Tax polluters and they will pass it on to consumers. I think Que. has made that illegal, but who knows how they will determine that a price increase is due to the Carbon tax being passed on.

Politically, it might be safer to do it that way but the result will be the same.

jaybird said...

Hey folks:

I will acknowledge that the LPC now seems to have an actual commitment to addressing climate change. I think that the point of the NDP is that in order for any policy to be effective it has to have enough buy-in from the public in order for any government to implement it.

Currently Canada does not have the ability to transition to a carbon-neutral reality. Our economy isn't ready, our infrastructure isn't ready (need better rail and public transit). We aren't prepared from an urban planning perspective. We are too dependent on international agricultural trade (been to the produce section at the local foodmart lately). The list goes on.

A carbon tax asks Canadians to go from 0 to 100km in 5 seconds flat. That is why if we start with cap and trade it gives us a little time and govt cash to make the necessary changes. I don't know if any of us knows whether cap and trade will be enough but it is the better option to start with.

I don't mean to be bitchy but I would point out that if some of those post 1995 to 2006 surpluses were spent on some of these things we would likely be in a better position.

The NDP also strongly believes that you can't ask poor and low income Canadians to shoulder the burden of climate change policy. This is the same logic behind the Kyoto agreement which didn't expect developing countries to shoulder the burden of trying to reduce their GHG emissions while they are trying to keep people fed, closed, housed and the lights on.

I honestly think that the LPC doesn't get just how hard it is for a significant number of Canadians.

Maybe if it did we would have seen the oft promised progressive legislation enacted instead of being left on the campaign office floor for 13 years.

Yes we can implement legislation which would make it illegal to pass along the costs to the consumer. And yes that will mean that government will actually have to properly regulate and actively oversee the carbon generating industries. I know the NDP is up for the job.

Dr. Tux said...

BigCityLib said:

"Simply accepting the Tory political spin that this will drive up fuel prices, as Warren does in spite of the fact that all Dion's pronouncements on the matter have made clear that the tax will not apply to gasoline, doesn't cut it. Its lazy. Its giving up before the fight has begun."

That's bang on.