Just don’t raise gas prices
North Americans agree their governments should deliver major change in energy policy — and they agree that they should not pay for it
Any informed observer knows there is a long list of reasons why developed nations should act swiftly and urgently to reduce their reliance on oil. We must do it to avoid catastrophes like the Gulf oil spill. To soften the impact of price shocks. To improve local air quality. To fight climate change. To lessen the risk of peak oil. To enhance our security and deny some of the world’s most odious regimes their principal source of money and power.
It’s equally obvious this has been true at least since the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Gerald Ford said most of what I wrote in that f irst paragraph. So did Jimmy Carter, and a long list of environmentalists, generals, corporate executives, and security off icials. Even George W. Bush said it.
And yet, the developed world today is essentially as reliant on oil as it was in 1973. How is that possible? It’s tempting to resort to conspiracy theories. We do love to hate those oil companies.
But the reality is much more mundane. And depressing.
It is this: most people are vaguely well-intentioned, but they don’t understand even the most basic facts. What they know intimately is the number on the big board at the gas station, and when it comes down to deciding what governments should do and which politicians they will vote for, that number is what people care about more than anything else.
That’s a little harsh, I know. But consider the evidence. Last week in the New York
Times, Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication at Stanford University, revealed polling data that showed Americans were — contrary to widespread belief — deeply supportive of action on climate change. That point is contested. (Krosnick’s poll seems to be an outlier.) But the key point for my purposes here is the contrast between the energy policies that people did and did not support.
“Fully 86 per cent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 per cent favoured the government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular,” Krosnick wrote. “And huge majorities favoured government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline ( 81 per cent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 per cent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 per cent). ... 84 per cent favoured the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind, and solar power.”
So what do Americans not support? “ Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 per cent) and gasoline ( 72 per cent) to reduce consumption.”
“ Thus,” Krosnick concluded, “ there is plenty of agreement about what people do and do not want government to do.” Indeed, there is. People agree that the government should deliver major change. And they agree that they should not pay for it.
Yes, people want a free lunch. Garnished with a nice pickle.
Apparently, the three-quarters of Americans opposed to energy taxes are unaware regulatory restrictions and mandates cost businesses money, and costs incurred by businesses are passed along to consumers. They also seem not to realize increased government expenditures — subsidies or tax breaks, it doesn’t make a difference — have to be paid with increased taxes or increased deficits (which are increased taxes on the instalment plan).
Or to put that a little more simply: there are no free lunches.
Unfortunately, Krosnick’s poll is not an outlier in this regard. Time and again, polls show large majorities support change, but they won’t pay a dime for it. Corporations can pay. Or governments. Whatever. Just make sure they get their cheap gas, dammit.
In 1985, after a decade of steadily rising oil prices and steadily improving energy efficiency, the price of oil plummeted and American politicians refused to set a tax floor to ensure that the transition away from an oil-based economy would continue. It was obviously the right thing to do and if it had been done the world would be a much better place today. But it wasn’t done because people wouldn’t support it. Cheap gas is a human right, after all.
This is not an American thing. In 2008, Canadians told pollsters climate change was their No. 1 concern, but they hammered Stéphane Dion for proposing a carbon tax that would have visibly raised gas and other prices. Instead, they elected Stephen Harper, who promised a cap-and-trade scheme that will invisibly raise gas and other prices. Why pay when you can have lunch for free?
President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats know what the polls say. “ In the aftermath of the spill, people firmly believe Congress needs to do more than just make BP pay,” concluded Joel Benenson, Obama’s pollster, in a recent presentation for the League of Conservation Voters. Energized by the disaster in the Gulf, the Democrats are planning to push a major energy bill through Congress.
What they won’t do is impose any direct tax because, in Benenson’s poll, 76 per cent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for any politician who “ supported an energy bill that would make families pay more for gas and energy.”
That simple fact explains why we have made so little progress since 1973. Ain’t democracy grand?
A protest sign greets U.S. president Barack Obama’s motorcade on a visit to inspect oil spill damage in Louisiana earlier this month.