Given that coal and oil companies aren’t run by idiots, it’s clear that they’re not going to make arguments of the form “we shouldn’t act to ward off preventable environmental disaster because that would be bad for our shareholders and executives.” Instead, polluting energy firms are going to ride on to the scene as apostles of class warfare, condemning carbon pricing, congestion fees, energy efficiency mandates, and everything else under the sun as an undue burden on the poor.
As readers know, I think that argument is often factual off-base. But at other times it has some real truth to it. If you make energy more expensive to use, this will inconvenience everyone to some extent, but it’ll be much less of a problem for more prosperous people. But what this analysis leaves out is that the price of inaction will also fall hardest on people of modest means. If changing weather patterns make food more expensive, then burden falls hardest on the poor. If natural disasters destroy people’s homes, then it’ll be hardest for the poor to rebuild. If water shortages lead to scarcity and black markets, it’s the rich who’ll be able to get what they need. This is the general virtue of having a lot of money—it can be exchanged for tangible items of value. Consequently, the downside impact of any widespread change will be hardest on those who have little of it. But that’s not a reason to never change our policies if the status quo is going to lead to even worse outcomes. You’re not ultimately doing the poor any good by condemning them to live in a world of climate catastrophe.
I only wish he’d added that it’s entirely possible to price climate emissions and still solve all of the regresivity the problems of higher energy prices; it’s even possible to improve upon current income distribution.
It goes like this: 1) cap carbon, 2) auction the permits, and 3) rebate all the revenue on a per capita basis. The bottom two income quintiles come out substantially ahead; the third quintile also does better, but just slightly; the fourth quintile does slightly worse; and the wealthiest income quintile takes a small hit. Problem solved.