The environment needs protecting — but not with taxes on fuel

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The environment needs protecting — but not with taxes on fuel

Central Paris has seen vehicles burned, business premises damaged and hundreds of arrests. (AFP)

Paris has been hit by an explosion of unrest now commonly referred to as the “yellow vest” protests. The riots and demonstrations in the heart of Western culture have evolved into a general reaction to wide-ranging issues with the French government, including complaints about the neglect of the working class and students’ rejection of new standardized testing policies. However, it all began as a reaction to France’s planned tax on gasoline.

No single issue better highlights the divide between the global elite and the rest of the world’s citizens than taxes on fuel. For two decades, the concept of carbon and fuel taxes has been pushed by powerful people in governments and NGOs, Hollywood and academia, big businesses and intergovernmental organizations like the UN. The argument is that, since taxing any product reduces its consumption, taxing carbon would reduce carbon pollution. The problem is that fuel is a necessity for people — almost as necessary as food, water and shelter.

The wealthiest people can afford expensive fuel and have no reason to curb their consumption in response to a tax. However, middle and lower-income households cannot afford the increased costs. In the face of fuel taxes, the non-wealthy are forced to decrease consumption of a vital commodity while the wealthy continue polluting at previous rates. 

Al Gore is a prime example of the hypocritical environmentalist elite. The former US vice president became a leading figure in the global warming cause after he left office in 2001. Five years later, he wrote and starred in a documentary called “An Inconvenient Truth,” which warned of the destruction of the planet because of carbon pollution. The film made over $50 million at the box office globally. 

Gore, who became synonymous with preachy rants about the need to cut carbon emissions, was exposed in 2017 by the National Center for Public Policy Research for owning a mansion in Nashville, Tennessee, that used “more electricity in one year than the average American family uses in 21 years.” In 2013, even Gore’s political allies were perplexed when this radical environmentalist sold his failing television station Current TV to Al Jazeera for $500 million. It was not lost on anyone that this anti-carbon crusader was being paid by a country enriched by the sale of natural gas and oil. To the average person, it seems that Gore is giving the rest of us strict rules for behavior, while he ignores his own prescriptions.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron was forced to withdraw his plans for an increased gasoline tax. The protests in Paris — which are said to be the worst in France since the infamous 1968 riots — were too much for him to bear politically. His approval rating dropped to below 30 percent and it became clear that the tax was untenable. But, before he nixed it, it was estimated that the tax would have raised the cost of gasoline in France to the equivalent of $7 per gallon. For comparison, that is almost three times as much as the average American is paying for gasoline this week.

The average French family cannot afford to pay so much for the gasoline they need to commute to work, carry out errands or visit family over the upcoming Christmas holiday. It is an unreasonable burden to place on the people. Of course, the wealthy would not notice the added costs. Only the non-wealthy would. 

Whatever one thinks about the threat of global climate change, the effort to cut pollution is always worthy of our commitment. No one wants dirty air and water or any of the other potential impacts of pollution. Yet the solution is not to punish the consumers, many of whom are just struggling to make successful lives for their families.

Some of the worst pollution in the world comes in underdeveloped and developing societies. This week, the Financial Times called India “the most polluted country on Earth.” Earlier this month, a report from the Indian Council of Medical Research claimed that one out of every eight deaths in India in 2017 was attributable to air pollution. China’s air pollution is so bad that, prior to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the government shut down nearby factories and restricted car usage. Nevertheless, the smog was so intense during the Games that it blocked out the sun at times.

In the face of fuel taxes, the non-wealthy are forced to decrease consumption of a vital commodity.

Ellen R. Wald

Air pollution, and particularly carbon emissions, are most commonly consequences of industrialization — power generation, factories and transportation. However, the poorest among us pollute as well. While industrialized societies heat buildings and cook food with oil, gas or electricity, there are still communities that predominantly burn wood or dung. These are two of the most polluting forms of energy generation. But we cannot punish these people with taxes or prohibitions — they often have no other fuel available.

The global elites say they want to protect the environment with restrictions and taxes on fuel usage, but they neglect the harm this does to the non-elites who need fuel to survive. Instead of punishing the end users, perhaps their efforts would be better spent creating opportunities for the research and development of more efficient and cheaper batteries, promoting the construction of cleaner factories, and building new power plants. Punishing those who are trying to make ends meet or who are focused on making better lives for their children with onerous taxes breeds resentment and, as we have seen, violence.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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