Viewpoints: Campaign against gas tax is foolhardy

A lobbying and PR effort is underway to prevent the state of California from implementing a gas tax as part of its effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. With funding by fossil fuel companies, the campaign taps into the anxieties of families who are already feeling the pinch at the pump.

While I agree that any increase in gas prices hurts, the reality is that our gas consumption is hurting even more, and a tax on carbon is the smartest way to address the problem. Climate change will have a far higher cost on our children than a gas tax will have on us.

We must hold regulators accountable for where and how the resulting revenues are spent. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture.

Climate change is real and is caused by humans. This is the consensus of 97 percent of the world’s top experts on the topic, as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A warming climate will take a huge toll on the California economy – far beyond anything that a gas tax will do. This includes impacts on agriculture, water supplies, wildfires and ecosystems.

Moreover, policies that reduce fossil fuel use carry immediate benefits for human health. In some regions, more Californians die each year from air pollution than from auto accidents.

Economists Jane Hall and Victor Brajer of California State University, Fullerton, report that in the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast Air Basin in 2006, an estimated 3,812 people died from respiratory illness caused by particulate pollution, compared to 2,521 deaths from traffic accidents. They found that the annual health costs from air pollution average well over $1,000 per person per year. Air pollution costs the state $28 billion annually.

There is a strong consensus among the nation’s leading economists that a tax on carbon is the most economically beneficial way to reduce carbon emissions. It allows companies and consumers to decide for themselves whether and how to reduce pollution – and, unlike cap-and-trade, it generates revenues.

Now is the time for California to take the lead in improving human health while tackling global warming, as proposed by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (who is of no relation to me). California often paves the way for change throughout the United States – influence that David Vogel of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business calls the “California effect.” California’s leadership on this issue can help other states – and hopefully the U.S. Congress – to follow suit. This is especially important now, in advance of a major global meeting on climate change that will take place in Paris next year.

I do not wish to trivialize the concerns of those who greet the prospect of a gasoline tax with exasperation. Working families deserve a share of the revenues generated by the tax, such as expanded subsidies for solar energy that could lower families’ electric bills while helping the environment. But to reflexively dismiss a tax on carbon is penny-wise but pound-foolish for California.