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Change attitudes through collective action on climate change - a petition for a worldwide referendum on a global carbon tax


Description

Summary

One major problem with people's attitudes towards climate change is they perceive that there is little they can do as individuals about the situation. Feeling powerless, they tune out of the debate or even reject the evidence for global warming.

Climate scientist James Hansen has proposed that there be a carbon tax or fee on fossil fuels as they are taken out of the ground, with the proceeds to be distributed to everyone. He calls it fee-and-dividend.

Many who have studied the problem agree that this would be the best approach, or at least a central part of any successful plan to control global warming.

To be effective, however, the fee-and-dividend system would have to be global. 

What is being proposed here is that some major international organization take on the task of organizing a petition for a worldwide referendum for a global carbon tax. 

Based on the Swiss precedent, such a petition would need 100 million signatures - a big number, but not unachievable.

The United Nations has experience in supervising votes in difficult situations. A worldwide referendum would mean scaling up the process, but it would not necessarily mean the voting process would be more difficult.

Assuming the referendum passes, it would set a precedent for addressing global problems with global solutions through democratic means.


Category of the action

Changing public perceptions on climate change


What actions do you propose?

"What can I do about climate change?"

Many people feel that there is little they can do as individuals about the rising level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the threat it poses to humanity. Feeling powerless, they tune out of the debate or even reject the evidence for global warming.

This proposal seeks to change attitudes and behaviors by giving people a method of collective action on climate change - a petition for a worldwide referendum on a global carbon tax.

Climate scientist James Hansen has proposed that there be a carbon tax or fee on fossil fuels as they are taken out of the ground, with the proceeds to be distributed to everyone. He calls it fee-and-dividend.

Many who have studied the problem agree that this would be the best approach, or at least a central part of any successful plan.

To be effective, however, such a fee-and-dividend system would need to be global. Hansen (at least in his book, "Storms of my Grandchildren" is vague on how this would be achieved. He seems to say that it should first be implemented bilaterally in the United States and China, who would then encourage other countries to follow suit.

Such a top-down, government-to-people approach is unlikely to work. A better approach might to take a bottom-up, people-to-government route.

How do we implement a new tax in such a way that it is perceived as legitimate by people? In many democratic countries the question is put to the people in a referendum and they are allowed to vote on it ... and when you think about it, it is hard to imagine how a global carbon tax would be accepted by the people of the world without a worldwide referendum.

And how would we make such a referendum happen? Again, in many democratic countries the people can initiate a referendum by collecting names on a petition. Get a certain number of signatures or percentage of the population, and the question automatically goes to a vote.

In Switzerland (population about 7 million) the citizens have the right to bring forward important questions to a nationwide vote through a petition with 100,000 signatures. A good example of this was the recent vote that brought in limitations on corporate executives' salaries and perks.

The equivalent number for a petition for the whole world (population 7 billion) would be 100 million signatures.

Hansen has proposed that the carbon tax (fossil fuel fee) be set at $10 per tonne of carbon dioxide to start, rising by $10 each year until it reaches $100 per tonne. That seems to me to be overly complicated and an invitation to cheating. With billions of dollars at stake, fossil fuel producers would be tempted to say the crude oil or coal was produced last year, or two years ago, and pay the lower rate.

Another factor to consider is that setting the tax too high at the start would encourage cheating - producers selling untaxed crude oil or coal - the blackest of black markets.

Cheating should be a real concern for any carbon tax or similar proposal. Consider how, until fairly recently, the Mafia collected hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars through the gas tax fraud. There is some evidence that similar activity is being found in cap-and-trade schemes.

Here in British Columbia we have a carbon tax now set at $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide and that seems to be having some effect . It is not so high as to encourage widespread cheating and so seems to me to be a good place to start.

According to Wikipedia, the world produces about 30 billion tonnes per year of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels (and production of cement).

A carbon tax of $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide would therefore raise about $900 billion per year.

Assuming there are five billion adult (age 18 and over) human beings in the world, distributing that revenue as a carbon dividend would give each of them a basic income grant of about $180 per year - doubling the annual income of probably millions of people.

 


Who will take these actions?

To be successful, the petition for a global carbon tax would need to be picked up by a major organization. The Global Greens (the international consortium of national Green parties) would be an obvious candidate, but there are others.

In the meantime, I have posted a draft version of the petition on Care2. The hope is to generate enough names on it that some major international organization will pick it up.


Where will these actions be taken?

To be perceived as legitimate, names for the petition would need to be collected from all parts of the world and every level of society. It is possible to imagine teams setting up in markets and similar gathering places to collect names.


How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

A study by Stewart Elgie, an economics and law professor at University of Ottawa, found that gasoline consumption in British Columbia has gone down by three per cent compared to the rest of Canada since the implementation of B.C.'s carbon tax. 

According to Wikipedia, the world produces about 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year through the burning of fossil fuels. A three percent reduction of that would amount to 900 million tonnes.

This might not sound like much but it would be a meaningful start.


What are other key benefits?

A global carbon dividend as proposed would have many benefits. However, I would like to identify two that seem to me to be most important.

The first would be simplicity. It would be relatively easy to identify those who are eligible to receive the benefit (age 18 and over), which would lessen the possibilities for corruption.

The second is that it would not be charity. The lives and livelihoods of every human being are being put in danger by global warming. The proposed carbon dividend would therefore be in partial compensation for that risk.

Such a global fee-and-dividend system would not solve all the world’s problems – but it would be a step in the right direction. It would help us to get a handle on global warming and global inequality – two of our biggest problems.

It would also open the door for reform and democratization of the United Nations (“No taxation without representation”).


What are the proposal’s costs?

According to Ballotopedia, the cost of collecting names on petitions or initiatives in California ranges from $1.18 to more than $10 per signature. The figure of $5 per name sounds like a prudent estimate.

Collecting 100 million signatures for the global carbon tax petition therefore would cost something like $500 million – about 1/5 the cost of one B-2 bomber.


Time line

As mentioned above, I have already posted a draft version of the petition on Care2.

Assuming that some major international organization picks up the proposal, there would need to be probably a year of preparation before name collection for the petition could begin.

Collecting names probably would take another year (many jurisdictions have shorter maximum time periods allowed for name collection on popular initiatives but, considering the logistic challenges of covering the whole world, one year seems reasonable.


Related proposals

Essentially all of the Climate CoLab proposals would become much more doable if there was a price on fossil fuel use.


References

Links to references are included in the proposal