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Comment: B.C.’s carbon tax defies standard political logic

Tax is a bad word in politics. It is considered a sure-fire way to turn the public off a policy and to tank approval ratings. However, B.C. seems to be an exception to the rule. Dirty word though it might be, B.C.

Tax is a bad word in politics. It is considered a sure-fire way to turn the public off a policy and to tank approval ratings. However, B.C. seems to be an exception to the rule.

Dirty word though it might be, B.C.’s carbon tax has a 64 per cent approval rating and has been called “as near as we have to a textbook case,” in a recent speech by Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In fact, the most notable finding in a recent study from the think tank Sustainable Prosperity is what the tax did not do. The policy has driven a 19 per cent per-capita reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions compared to the rest of Canada, and more significantly, it has not brought economic apocalypse to the province. On the contrary, B.C. has grown at a slightly faster pace than other provinces.

When political rhetoric around environmental issues so often proclaims that we must choose between the economy and the environment, B.C. demonstrates that this is not the case. Why, then, has it not been enthusiastically seized upon by other jurisdictions to curb their emissions?

Federally, carbon taxes are toxic. They became emblematic of federal election defeat in 2008 when the Liberal party’s “Green Shift” platform was spun by the Conservative party as a capital-T tax on our hard-earned dollars, rather than as the revenue-neutral tax shift that was being proposed.

It has yet to be raised again in any significant setting. Until it is reframed as an efficient, hands-off and simple way to reduce emissions without unduly burdening Canadians, it is unlikely to be raised again.

This was one of the reasons that the B.C. Liberals’ re-election in 2009 was so notable: They promised to keep the carbon tax and were not ousted from office for doing so. This raises another motive for slow uptake: What works for the B.C. electorate does not necessarily work everywhere else. While British Columbians might have recognized the efficacy of the tax and its necessity, the same environmental consciousness does not necessarily permeate other jurisdictions.

Yet British Columbians are not the only ones who think the tax is sound policy. The carbon tax is recommended by leading economists as the most effective means to reduce carbon emissions and is supported by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce for this reason. Two American states have signalled that they intend to follow in B.C.’s footsteps to put a price on carbon as a part of the recently announced Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy.

This is good news for the planet and B.C.’s economy. Although there is no substantiated evidence that the carbon tax has affected B.C.’s competitiveness, it is one of the concerns in the province. Levelling the playing field with a price on carbon in surrounding jurisdictions would further allay these fears.

This is why it is in all of our interests to see Washington and Oregon pass a carbon tax. However, taxes are a hard sell because of their negative connotations. The economic and environmental benefits of a revenue-neutral tax will be drowned out by the word “tax.” This is why we must rename it for what it is: a fee for polluting our shared atmosphere.

George Lakoff, renowned cognitive linguist and professor at the University of California Berkeley has published extensively on the subject of framing taxes. He explains that “taxing and spending” has a considerably different ring than “generating and investing revenue,” although in practice, they describe the same policy. Yet because taxes are so negatively ingrained in our minds, until we reframe the carbon tax, B.C. will likely continue to be the exception.

When we consider “what’s in a name?” the answer is “everything” when it comes to a carbon tax. The support of British Columbians is substantiated in research that suggests it is not only smart policy economically, but also effectively curbs our emissions. Yet until we find a way to rename it as a “Carbon Reductions Shift,” a “GHG Dividends Scheme” or a “Polluter Pays Alignment Policy” — anything but a tax — uptake is likely to continue at a glacial pace.

And unfortunately, the world’s real glaciers cannot afford to wait.


Keleigh Annau, who grew up in Parksville, is a master of public policy candidate on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of California Berkeley. She is also the executive director of Lights Out Canada, a national climate-change awareness program she founded when in high school on Vancouver Island.

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