OPINION: Can a carbon tax support environmental justice?

This past summer, homes in Detroit were flooded with up to five feet of sewage backup after heavy rains dumped six inches of water overnight. It took weeks and more than $10,000 (not reimbursed by insurance) for my home in East English Village to be restored to a livable condition. Two weeks later, our homes were flooded again by another 100-year storm.

For well over a century, communities of color have suffered disproportionately the impacts of pollution while mainstream, white-led environmental organizations did little to help. Unless climate solutions center communities that have been historically overburdened, the people that are most likely to be hit hardest by climate change or have the most to contribute in a crisis will not benefit.

I joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby because I wanted to do something about climate change. At the time I did not know that CCL had an image problem when it came to environmental justice because of its support for a carbon tax, a strategy that calls for taxing energy companies a fee based on the amount of carbon emissions they produce. 

The mechanism is controversial with environmental justice communities because its close relatives, cap-and-trade and carbon offsetting, have done little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while enabling companies to “pay to pollute.” 

However, recent carbon tax bills bear little resemblance to old problematic ones and do support environmental justice goals. For example, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, introduced by Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL), has 86 cosponsors in the House. The bill calls for putting a $15 per metric ton of CO2 equivalent tax on energy companies which would steadily increase until emissions are reduced 90 percent by 2050. 

Putting a tax on carbon emissions makes it more likely that people will turn to cheaper, healthier alternatives like clean energy. The bill also calls for the revenue from the taxes to be distributed in the form of dividend checks to American households. Those in the bottom quintile in terms of income would receive $514 a year, more than enough to offset any rising energy costs due to the legislation. In British Columbia, where a similar policy was instituted in 2008, greenhouse gas emissions declined in subsequent years while economic growth remained the same. 

Other versions, like the Save Our Future Act, introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and developed in partnership with environmental justice organizations, would use the revenue to fund energy efficiency for lower-income households, job training, and to remedy the impact of fossil fuel development. The proposed policy also calls for taxes on air pollutants like SO2, NOx and PM2.5 when they are emitted from a “major source” within one mile of an environmental justice community.

A thoughtfully designed carbon tax is widely considered by climate scientists and environmental economists to be a cost-effective strategy to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. Used in conjunction with other measures like clean energy incentives and emission control standards, it would accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy and zero emissions by 2050. Forty-five countries around the world already have some form of carbon pricing policy in place. Similar policies have been used successfully in the past to curb sulfur emissions from burning coal in the U.S. and to reduce tobacco use. 

Opposition to carbon pricing among the environmental justice community can be attributed to the fact that badly written carbon pricing policies in the past have enabled corporate polluters to take advantage of loopholes to continue polluting. These policies, often utilizing emissions trading systems, or “cap and trade,” have had issues with corruption, double counting, offsetting reductions in one place by polluting more in frontline communities, and a host of other problems. 

A 2021 report from the NAACP states, “Our research shows that these systems can often play out as what amounts to sophisticated international shell games, where little net decline in emissions occurs because the measures simply serve to transfer pollution from one location or one country to another, depending on who can afford to pollute.” Within the US, carbon pricing has been shown to create or worsen “sacrifice zones,” areas of high pollution where Black, Indigeous, people of color (BIPOC) people are the majority. 

Unfortunately, CCL’s singular focus on advocating for a carbon tax has gained it a reputation for not paying attention to environmental justice issues. Even though environmental justice isn’t CCL’s explicit aim, CCL’s bottom line is effective climate solutions that do not harm low-income households. Reducing greenhouse emissions is good for all and has immediate benefits for frontline communities like improving air quality. CCL also recognizes that a carbon tax is not a silver bullet to fix climate change, and should complement other legislation that will have more direct benefits to frontline communities. CCL is in dialogue with environmental organizations at the national level to ensure that their priorities are incorporated into any legislation it supports. 

Due to Detroit being at the center of many environmental justice issues, our chapter has supported and spearheaded a number of environmental justice initiatives since its founding in 2017. With just five active members for most of its existence, we have joined other groups in protesting Line 5, the pipeline that transports petroleum from Canada to the US through the strait of Mackinac. We collectively contributed comments to shut down the incinerator that was polluting Detroit’s southwest neighborhoods. Members also joined with the People’s Water Board Coalition to support a moratorium on water shutoffs to city residents unable to pay their water bills.

In the runup to the 2017 election, we organized a town hall meeting for the Detroit mayor and city council candidates to answer questions from the public on environmental justice. In 2018-2020, we raised funds for students of color from Detroit universities to attend the Citizens’ Climate Conference in Washington DC where they sat down with their members of Congress to discuss their concerns about climate change and environmental justice. We continue to participate in Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s environmental justice coalition to support issues important to the community. 

During the congressional budget reconciliation process of the last year, CCL has continued to advocate for a carbon tax while supporting the entire suite of progressive measures in the Build Back Better Act. Since it was introduced, CCL supporters around the country have placed over 182,000 calls and emails to Democratic members of Congress to urge its passage. Even though the Build Back Better Act does not have the support it needs to pass in the Senate, we continue to urge President Biden and Congress to pass strong climate legislation. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, CCL recognizes the need for communities to work together to solve this problem. Solving the climate crisis requires a myriad of solutions, of which a thoughtfully designed carbon tax is only one. Clean energy mandates, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and investments in marginalized communities are also necessary. 

In places like Detroit, this also means investments in public transit, food access, shutting down polluting facilities, and infrastructure upgrades that will make Detroit more resilient to floods like the ones that devastated residents last summer. CCL volunteers in Detroit support all these approaches and those who advocate for them. By listening to and supporting our environmental justice peers, we hope to build the trust and collaboration needed to confront these challenges as a community. 

To learn more: 

Watch CCL’s video on “why put a price on carbon?”

CCL’s statement on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice

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