The Politics of Putting a Price on Pollution

Political Scientist Kathryn Harrison researches what political policies are most effective in tackling climate change.

Kathryn Harrison

Why does carbon pricing remain politically contentious, despite an abundance of evidence that carbon taxes reduce emissions without negatively impacting the economy?

As the Trudeau government launches its federal carbon tax, political scientist Kathryn Harrison is paying close attention. An expert on environmental policy, Harrison has been studying the politics of carbon taxes for a decade.

“Carbon taxes are particularly intriguing, because there’s agreement among policy experts that it’s a great approach for addressing climate change, but also lots of evidence that adoption of a carbon tax is politically hazardous,” says Harrison. “Carbon taxes are ‘good policy’ but ‘bad politics.’ But if that’s the case, why does any government ever propose a carbon tax, and how do at least some of those proposals get implemented and survive?”

[Read: Here’s What the Carbon Tax Means For You by Kathryn Harrison]

Harrison is attempting to answer this by analyzing carbon tax debates in four countries: Canada, Australia, France and Ireland. She’s found that in each of these countries, political opponents have played on voters’ fears and misunderstanding of how carbon taxes work to mobilize opposition, resulting in some ugly political debates. In many instances, that strategy has worked and the people campaigning for robust climate policies have lost elections.

But not always. Harrison has been dissecting the examples in which carbon tax policy has been successful to understand what went well. What conditions or strategies allow pro‑environmental policy to prevail? “Sometimes that’s been through multi‑party collaboration, sometimes by leading with benefits to the economy rather than the environment, and sometimes, to be honest, it’s just been luck,” she says.

Harrison says it’s an exciting topic in Canada right now, given the recent launch of the federal carbon tax in four provinces. She’s noticed opponents using the same arguments and tactics from previous debates in Canada and elsewhere. “Most of what’s being said is either selective (for instance, ignoring that tax rebates will leave most families in provinces subject to the federal carbon tax better off), misleading in pretending that we can meet our targets by focusing only on big industrial polluters, or just wrong in stating that carbon taxes don’t work.”

But Harrison is watching to see if Canada’s carbon tax rebates will make a difference, noting that most taxpayers will get more money back than they will pay. “Will voters even notice that they’re getting money back, and if they do, does that affect their opinion of the federal carbon tax? I’m also curious whether voters will be influenced by information and evidence as the political debate over the carbon tax unfolds in the months to come. Will they have a reasonably accurate understanding of the costs and benefits they face, or will they just take their signals from the parties they trust?”

To assess this, Harrison and her colleagues are surveying a group of Canadians at several intervals: before the carbon tax takes effect, after the tax is first applied, and after they get rebates through their taxes. “Our goal is to learn whether voters understand and support the carbon tax, and what difference the dividend cheques make.”

Why is climate change a topic you’ve devoted your career to?

Climate change is arguably the greatest challenge humankind is currently facing. I feel a sense of obligation to use my good fortune – born into a wealthy country, access to a top‑notch education, and security of a tenured academic position – to do what I can to make things better for those less fortunate and future generations. I hope that my research and public scholarship can contribute in a small way.

If there was one solution or recommendation that you would like people to take away from your climate research, what would it be?

On climate change, there’s been a really unhelpful dance between Canadian voters and politicians for more than three decades, even as our emissions have gone up and up. Politicians don’t believe that voters will support them if they propose the kinds of policies needed to deliver real change, so they offer truisms like “the environment and economy go hand in hand” and adopt feel‑good policies that help a bit at the margins but don’t challenge our fossil fuel dependence.

In turn, most voters readily embrace the message that we can save the world without changing our lives. They reject policies – like carbon taxes – that have even modest impacts on them. If we’re going to fix this problem, something has to give. Either political parties have to agree that this issue is just too important for partisan opportunism, or voters have to accept that fundamental change is needed and vote for candidates who are honest about that.