The ‘Underpants Gnomes of Carbon Dividends’ respond to Dave Roberts


The ‘Underpants Gnomes of Carbon Dividends’ respond to Dave Roberts

By Judy Weiss

Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers are accustomed to articles attacking carbon taxes (see fossil fuel lobbyist Bill O’Keefe’s article), and they’re used to condemnations of CCL (see Tom Harris’s letters), and even to attacks from Internet trolls. But many of us were stunned in April by acclaimed environmental journalist David Roberts, whose articles have skillfully guided us through the wonky world of climate change policies. Roberts’ recent article indirectly suggested that CCL volunteers are “underpants gnomes,” and made us wonder:

1) why would Roberts cherry-pick evidence in order to attack CCL’s work, and

2) what are underpants gnomes?

First, a few examples of cherry-picking before we turn to the alluring world of undergarments and gnomes.

Roberts begins with a well-known point: When designing a carbon tax proposal, one must consider how to use the significant revenue (see here, figure 3.17) that will be raised, because this question alone could determine whether or not the proposal is ever enacted. CCL suggests that federal carbon tax revenue be recycled back into the economy via dividends to the public in order to prevent liberal objections to regressive taxation, conservative objections to increasing government spending, and business concerns that a tax would slow the economy.

However, Roberts asserts that there’s no real world example of dividends mustering support for a carbon tax (does that means we should never try anything new?).

Then Roberts claims that there’s no polling evidence to suggest popular support for carbon taxes, nor even a hint of a populist movement. For polling evidence Roberts cites a 2014 Yale climate poll that indicated that only 44% of voters would support a carbon tax if income were refunded to every American household. Roberts also partially cites another 2014 poll from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College which showed very poor support for a carbon tax unless the revenues were used in specific ways: 60% supported the tax if revenues funded renewable energy programs and 56% support the tax if funds would be rebated to the public.

Roberts concludes from the latter poll:

“Investing in renewables outpolls dividends all along the political spectrum, including Republicans. Why? More research is needed to answer this question, or to see whether the pattern holds over time. . . . at the very least tax-and-dividend proponents should temper their claims that dividends are the skeleton key to climate policy until there is more, or at least some, evidence.”

But notice how the polling center presented its results:

A majority of respondents support a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and an even larger majority support a carbon tax with revenues used to fund research and development for renewable energy programs.”

Roberts downplayed the fact that a majority of respondents in 2014 support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.  In addition, the pollsters noted a key finding: “a revenue-neutral carbon tax in which all tax revenue would be returned to the public in the form of a rebate check, received 56% support. The largest gains in support come from Republicans.” The pollsters saw important, nuanced information in their poll.

Why does this nuance matter? How well are the EPA’s Clean Power Plan regulations working? How long will they be tied up in court battles and face Republican obstructionism in individual states? How far can executive action on climate change take us? Fighting climate change, like the space race, requires the coordinated efforts of our federal government, and that can’t happen while the legislative branch is on the disabled list, and while the judiciary branch is benched by the legislature’s refusal to appoint new judges and justices. We need a way to develop popular support for climate legislation among Republican voters in order to motivate Congressional Republicans to suit up for the big game.

Here’s some more evidence Roberts omitted: after the 2009 cap-and-trade bill failed in Congress, Harvard professor Theda Skocpol studied what happened. She concluded that there was:

“A clear pull on politicians from grassroots conservative opinion around 2006 and 2007. Climate-change denial had been an elite industry for a long time, but it finally penetrated down to conservative Republican-identified voters around this time. That created new pressures on Republican officeholders and candidates. And I don’t think most people noticed that at the time.”

If the 2009 cap-and-trade bill failed due to grassroots Republican campaigns diminishing Republican support in Congress, couldn’t the development of grassroots Republican support for a carbon tax now lead to carbon tax legislation? Environmentalists have been able to team up with conservative Republicans voters on other aspects of climate change. Consider the Sierra club’s partnership with the Atlanta tea party to win support for solar power in Georgia. And in recent months a coalition of Georgia Republican-leaning landowners and left-leaning environmentalists cooperated to move the Georgia legislature to enact a bill imposing a moratorium on the use of eminent domain to seize land for the building of another pipeline. And, even though coal communities and climate organizations aren’t natural allies, West Virginia University’s College of Law held a conference in April which included consideration of a carbon tax and the various ways revenue could rebuild coal communities, retrain workers, support technological innovation, or reclaim abandoned mines.  

And in the last few months, some Congressional Republicans have begun to express interest in climate change. See in particular the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus.

There are so many other precious nuggets that Roberts overlooked:

  • A Stanford poll from 2015 found that 2/3 of Americans support corporations paying a tax for their carbon pollution, if tax revenue is returned to the public via lower income taxes. The Carbon Tax Center noted that “The poll’s finding is the most powerful indication yet that the public is warming to carbon taxation as the premier policy for combating climate change.
  • A Yale climate poll from Spring 2016 found that 68% of registered voters support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes such as income taxes by an equal amount.

In addition, Roberts stressed sinister possibilities:

“There’s also an underlying note of disdain for the compromises and trade-offs that come with policy in a fractious democracy. That’s where the pining for a grassroots movement comes from. It’s imagined as a way to circumvent the ugly process of horse-trading that takes place in actual legislatures.”

Really? Only corporate, large NGO and other paid lobbyists can participate in legislative horse-trading? Private citizens cannot band together to make their insignificant, independent, impish voices heard?

He suggested that support for a revenue-neutral plan represents libertarian disdain for government, and an anti-politics attitude that refuses to compromise. Really? How can a movement gather allies and build support if the movement only preaches to the choir, and if it won’t consider solutions that appeal to people from different parts of the political spectrum? Why can’t we learn to speak to others respectfully in their language? Does Roberts really think we’re so daft that we think any proposal will go through Congress without horse-trading, from both the left and the right?

He claimed that Dr. James Hansen, world famous climate scientist, is “fixated” on carbon fees with dividends to the public as the only, perfect solution to climate change. Fixated is a pretty strong term for a climate journalist to slap on Hansen. Yet, at a 2015 CCL event, I asked my husband (a scientist) why did Hansen seem to speak about carbon fees more than he spoke about climate science? It bothered me. My husband said that Hansen has understood for a very long time where climate change is going, and it’s pretty unbelievable that Congress has ignored him. Hansen doesn’t want to give up hope that Congress will arrive at a reasonable, sensible response in a timely manner, but he’s not getting younger, and he sees time is running out both for him and the climate.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon in journalists who have concentrated on covering climate change, and who have young families. After a while, it’s impossible for them to hold the climate facts they report at an impersonal distance. Their yearning for climate action shows in their eyes. Perhaps this is why Roberts can’t bear Hansen’s determination and constant appeals for urgent, effective action. . . people tend to react strongly when they see parts of themselves in other people.

Here’s a few more treasures that Roberts kept under his hat:

  • In Paris, a coalition of governments, agencies, NGO’s, and citizen organizations formed to work together on carbon pricing–the Carbon Pricing Initiative.
  • India initiated a carbon tax on coal in 2010 at a very low rate. They doubled the rate in 2014, again in 2015 and a third time in 2016.
  • Moreover, starting a carbon tax at a very low rate is a good idea not just because of political necessity. Starting at a low rate and steadily increasing the rate reflects a valuable optimization technique known as a “control algorithm.” It’s smart policy in the face of risk and incomplete information about what the economically and environmentally optimal carbon tax rate should be.

Roberts concluded by saying that “revenue-neutral carbon fee” is a really bad messaging device, and claimed that it would be preferable to sell a positive campaign for clean energy to be financed by fossil fuel companies paying a carbon tax. He says this approach “taps into a belief in the power of active government that is more in line with where young progressives are headed these days. It’s not punitive, eat-your-vegetables sacrifice. It’s optimistic, ambitious, and forward-looking, a bet that we can still do big things together — not just wait for markets to do them for us.”

Why should policy be designed just to appeal to young progressives (see Kristoff, A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” 5/7/2016). Young voters don’t vote as reliably as older voters, and many hard-core environmentalists don’t vote at all.

I suppose “underpants gnomes” were also used by Roberts as a cute device to appeal to young progressives. The motif, underpants gnomes, comes from South Park, season 2, episode 17.  I didn’t find it funny, but my kids did. Roberts’ underwear gnomes theme suggests that secretive little people with ugly beards and pointy hats choose an intrusive plan of action, and offer no explanation of how the plan will proceed from thievery to profitable enterprise. After hand-waving, silence, or the sprinkling of magic dust, they declare a seat-of-the-underpants conclusion that their plan will succeed.

Bob Inglis has already told CCL why our grassroots movement will succeed: The right DNA, the right approach and a singular focus.  Our DNA comes from a most gracious, grateful and generous founder, our approach is to talk to everyone, and our singular focus is on national climate legislation for a livable world. Does the legislation have to be carbon fee and dividend. No . . . but we do think it stands the best chance of gaining the widest support, and accomplishing the most environmental good, while causing the least economic harm.

And we, the few, the proud, the hardworking, honest, and good-spirited “underpants gnomes of carbon dividends,” we’re looking for a few good gnomes.

Judy Weiss
Rabbi Judy Weiss lives in Brookline, MA. She teaches Hebrew Bible to adults, and she is a volunteer climate change advocate with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Boston Jewish Climate Action Network, and the Boston chapter of Elders Climate Action.