The Washington Post has an editorial on the challenges of addressing global warming that contains this passage:
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lessen dependence on fossil fuels, there must be a price on carbon. A cap-and-trade system is the easiest way to integrate into an international regime, but its pitfalls are legion. A gas tax would be simpler and less subject to bureaucratic manipulation and undermining by lobbying interests. It would be the easiest way to change behavior, meet emissions targets and spark the innovation that will produce the next generation of energy production that will save the planet.
The first two sentences are inarguably true. The third is arguably true. But the fourth is just false. Straightforwardly incorrect. In error. Is this the state of understanding in the upper echelons of U.S. media? If so we are truly screwed. (Just about everything I say below applies equally well to this piece from Michael Kinsley.)
First: The editors seem to be getting them mixed up (that’s the charitable interpretation, anyway), but a gas tax is not a carbon tax. The former is a subset of the latter. A carbon tax would effect most of the economy, but gas tax would only affect transportation, which amounts to about a third of our emissions, and leave the other two thirds untouched.
Second, in what political world is a gas tax "easy"? Were the WaPo editors around this summer during the drill-now debate? Generally American drivers prefer for gas prices to go down, not up.
Third, fuel costs are a relatively small fraction of total costs for car owners. So why would raising fuel taxes be the “easiest” way to change drivers’ behavior? Why not incentives that address vehicle choices, like feebates? Or incentives that more directly address driving choices, like pay-as-you-drive auto insurance? Or measures that directly take the most polluting vehicles off the road, like junker credits? Or investments that create alternatives, like public transit?
Fourth, why would a gas tax be the easiest way to “spark innovation”? Certainly it wouldn’t have much effect on "energy production," as the editorial asserts. (How would a gas tax affect that in any way?). But just in terms of auto production, why would a gas tax be the best spur to innovation? The government could fund R&D directly. It could mandate higher fuel efficiency. It could pledge to purchase only electric vehicles. It could approve California’s tailpipe emission standards waiver. Any of these would be more of a direct spur to the industry than a slightly higher gas tax.
The WaPo editors — and they are not alone — are lazily echoing conventional wisdom, and for some reason the Very Serious CW is congealing around a gas tax hike. But a modicum of thought reveals hiking the gas tax to be far down the list of efficacious ways of accomplishing our GHG goals. Perhaps it’s worth doing, but it would behoove the mavens of mainstream media to at least give the subject more than a few seconds consideration.