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Al Gore's inconvenient tax

What you probably won't hear at the Live Earth concert: a call for higher taxes on gasoline and fuel.

July 5, 2007



The current crop of US presidential candidates can only wish for the spotlight that will shine on Al Gore Saturday. He's the luminary for a globe-spanning, rock-star-studded, anti-global-warming concert called Live Earth. Most likely, though, his most radical idea won't get a mention.

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The former vice president (and almost president) wants to replace the current payroll tax with a consumer tax on fossil-fuel use.

This "carbon tax" would, of course, raise the price of gasoline and home heating/cooling. And it would put the burden of generating the same level of federal revenues on consumers while reducing the tax burden on labor and capital (workers and employers). Unless the poor get a break on this consumption tax, it will hit them harder than wealthier folks.

No wonder then that Mr. Gore waited until March to really push this extreme makeover of the US tax system aimed at achieving a rapid reduction in oil and coal use with a fee on greenhouse-gas emissions.

No wonder that no presidential candidate endorses it, especially with gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon. (Polls show that two-thirds of Americans don't want to pay more at the pump, just as they don't prefer more slowly.)

And no wonder a carbon tax is not even suggested in the seven-point pledge that everyone who watches the Live Earth broadcast will be asked to sign.

If Gore does run again for president, as some hope, his taxing idea will likely become the hottest topic on the stump. (Hillary Clinton says a gas tax is "hardly politically palatable at this moment.")

The Live Earth pledges do call for personal action against global warming, such as becoming "carbon neutral" and buying only from businesses committed to solving the climate crisis. Mostly, however, they call for government action, such as a new treaty that would reduce greenhouse gases by 90 percent in rich countries within a few decades.

Any such treaty with that kind of demand for a swift drop in CO2 output would require the kind of radical change in lifestyles that a stiff carbon tax would bring. Consumption taxes, after all, are often designed to wean people off bad behavior, such as smoking.

A 90 percent drop in these emissions is probably what's needed to limit any rise in atmospheric warming to 2 degrees Celsius, a goal that many scientists recommend.

Most presidential candidates do endorse pinching pocketbooks, but only indirectly, such as by calling for higher fuel efficiency in vehicles and a cap on greenhouse-gas pollution from company smokestacks. Such demands on industry have the advantage of creating more certainty in reducing emissions, but they are complex to enforce. Gore would do both: tax carbon use and cap emissions.

Putting a crimp on global warming can't be done solely by promoting new energy technologies and voluntary conservation. Consumers of oil and coal need a direct tax shock.

But the last time Congress raised the gasoline tax was in 1993. In the Senate, Gore cast the deciding vote. At the next election in 1994, the GOP won big on Capitol Hill. Politicians took note.

It may take more than one Live Earth concert to warm up the public and politicians to a carbon tax.

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