Push for a carbon tax will show up at some town meetings

Monitor staff
Published: 1/8/2020 3:14:57 PM

A key issue in the debate over how best to fight global climate change – whether to tax carbon-emitting fuels – might be showing up in a very non-globalized setting: local town meetings.

Climate activists are asking people to put petitioned warrant articles in front of town meeting voters asking them to support the federal or state government establishing a “fee to be paid by vendors of carbon-based fuels based on their emissions,” with the money divvied among all state households under what they call a “carbon fee and dividend” approach.

The votes would be non-binding but supporters hope they can demonstrate a groundswell of support for the idea of making the cost of carbon emissions obvious.

At the same time, the New Hampshire House is scheduled to vote Thursday on a bill (HR 735) that would do just that, by establishing a $20-per-ton fee for carbon emitted by fuel “sold, used, or entered into the state ... for purposes of distribution or use within the state.”

Even if it passes, the bill would eventually need the signature of Gov. Chris Sununu, who seems unlikely to support the idea. Supporters hope town meeting attention might sway him.

“The idea is to create the political will that will enable Congress to act,” said John Gage, a volunteer with the group Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which is spearheading the town meeting campaign. In New Hampshire, “the governor will be the biggest hurdle – we’re going to need a lot of political will.”

The push for mention at town meetings, called the Carbon Cash-Back Coalition, began only in the past few weeks, which leaves little time.

“We started way too late to do it justice,” said Gage.

Warrant articles created by petition must be turned in, carrying at least 10 signatures from town residents, by Jan. 14 for communities operating under SB2 or ballot-voting rules – which is the case in 74 towns, including all of the largest ones.

Towns operating under traditional town meeting rules have an extra month before petitioned warrant articles must be turned in.

Gage, a computer programmer from Windham who says he quit his job in January to advocate for fighting climate change, said that in more than 60 New Hampshire communities “there are people, we call them town champions, who have agreed to ... collect the necessary signatures and submit it on time.”

Even if town meeting voters reject the article, he said, “at least 60 people from across the state will learn about carbon pricing well enough to talk about it to their friends and neighbors. We’re empowering people to take action – change takes place when enough people become informed and make a change.”

The idea of putting a tax on carbon emissions has long been discussed as the most straightforward method of tackling the rise in greenhouse gasses. It gets support from many economists and has even started to get support from a few conservative political groups who see it as the closest thing to a free-market approach to tackling climate change, such as a bill creating a $30-per-ton carbon tax filed by a Republican Congressman from Florida.

If it became law, federal policy would replace any state policy.

A carbon fee would undoubtedly raise the cost of many items, from fuels to plastics, which could have an oversized effect on lower-income people. Supporters say this drawback can be turned into a benefit by taking the money that the state collects from the fee and distributing it equally to all households.

“Most low-income households have smaller than average carbon footprint, so they’ll come out ahead because they’ll receive more money from the rebate than they pay in higher prices,” said Gage. “The money goes back to the people, it doesn’t go into Exxon’s profits or Saudi Arabia’ pockets.”

As for New Hampshire’s competitiveness, Gage argued that the Granite State needs to take action now.

“The global momentum to price carbon is real. New Hampshire will either end up doing a slow, incremental change, benefit from being ahead of game, or wait until it’s imposed on us,” he said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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