The Canadian right has taken symbolic and practical control over the carbon-tax debate. To understand the ease with which this has happened, just look at the significant differences between the yellow vest movement in France and the co-optation of those vests here with protests against Trudeau, carbon taxes, and immigration in this country.
For someone like me, used to life in an urban setting but currently working in suburban Ontario, resistance to the carbon tax has both felt closer and has challenged me to think differently than I might usually want to. The fodder for anti-carbon-tax protests comes from several places, such as climate change denial and a desire for affluence. But some of the basis is suburban life itself.
The cost of living in the ‘burbs
Working people priced out of cities are increasingly filling the suburbs. When much of what defines these areas is the result of poor planning and deferral to big developers who build large, low-density housing far from services and jobs, it makes sense for those who end up living there to be angry at how the costs of sprawl are then downloaded.
The realities of suburban life reveal important failures of Trudeau’s carbon tax, and fertile ground for leftists to speak to the concerns of working people.
People in the suburbs talk a lot about the rising cost of living. Some of this is due to the obsession with status and disposable income — shared by those in urban and suburban areas — that fuels middle-class dreams. But some is due to the fact that life is getting more expensive, and living in the suburbs comes with its own set of expenses and limitations.
For one thing, living in the suburbs means relying almost exclusively on chain grocery stores for food. In the absence of farmers’ markets and local grocers, suburbanites are at the whims of the oligopolistic grocery sector, which, in this country, is no stranger to markups and price fixing. Another common refrain of suburban life is the need to drive. When walking to the grocery store or taking a bus to a local park is not a feasible option, people’s relationships to car ownership and the related costs change.
Even with the promise of rebates, many people who oppose the carbon tax are worried about the impact that rising gas prices will have on their ability to pay for their needs. This is not a flippant concern. Paying more for things at the point of purchase affects people, and being told they will have to pay more stokes resentment.
An attack on individuals
The right has successfully leveraged suburban concerns to deploy arguments against the carbon tax while fuelling racism and xenophobia.
We need to find a meaningful alternative narrative that starts by acknowledging that resistance to the carbon tax, in its current form, is justified. People are right to be angry, and we should be too. We should be angry because this tax is an attack on individual people, not a solution to our capitalist-fuelled climate crisis. This acknowledgement is important to winning the bigger argument for structural economic transformation.
The Liberal carbon tax does not target major polluters or work to eliminate destructive industries in favour of a green transformation (let alone a just transformation). Trudeau has promised that the oil and gas sector will receive massive exemptions from the emissions targets of the carbon tax (up to an estimated 80 per cent). Other exemptions include industries at”‘high competitive risks,” such as iron and steel production, cement, and fertilizer. While Doug Ford’s recent climate strategy for Ontario, which includes a beautifully encompassing caveat that all carbon targets will be weighed against the special interests of any industry on a case-by-case basis, is folly, there is little better about the federal approach.
The carbon tax has another hidden benefit for the oil and gas sector: it largely doesn’t affect their product. Measurements of emissions in Canada do not include the emissions produced by the exported oil when it is burned elsewhere. Because Canadian refineries buy at least half of their oil from foreign markets (the U.S. and the Middle East), Canadian-produced oil, two thirds of which is exported, will not face the full effects of this carbon tax.
Subsidizing oil and gas
The desired effect of a carbon tax, over time, is to reduce the amount of oil consumed by individuals and industry.
But since most of the oil consumed in Canada does not come from Alberta’s tar sands, it doesn’t really matter to companies there if domestic consumption changes. Add to this the fact that Trudeau has ignored the sovereignty of First Nations by committing billions of public dollars to buying a pipeline, and most recently promised an additional $1.6 billion to oil companies in Alberta, and it’s hard to see how any of his environmental policies challenge the heavy subsidization of the oil and gas sector, which is a catastrophic basis for our economy (and our growing climate debt).
In 2016 the Alberta oil sands were predicted to account for 14 per cent of Canadian emissions (not including emissions from burning that oil) by 2030, up from 7 per cent in 2010 and accounting for 60 per cent of the total increase in Canadian emissions.
There is no indication, however, that any action is being taken to reduce that number or our dependence on oil.
Instead, we get a lot of discussion about the emissions produced by smaller industries and by individuals in their cars. Importantly, what the right has been successful at so far is tapping into the sentiment that the carbon tax is going to raise the cost of living even higher and deploying that sentiment for the benefit of continued corporate welfare. They’ve even been successful at making gestures towards the sort of critique offered here, while the Ford climate strategy makes clear that public subsidies for polluters remains the dominant approach.
The right may speak a language that acknowledges people’s concerns, but the ultimate effect of their policies is to continue entrenched inequality and the accompanying environmental destruction. The trend in Canada of linking anti-carbon-tax protest and hate against immigrants is a terrifying move by right-wing forces that we can’t let slide.
How we can combat this? Our best weapons come from challenging, not supporting, the current iteration of the carbon tax. To start, we can take up the cost-of-living argument by calling the carbon tax what it is: regressive. Regressive taxes, such as the GST, disproportionately affect people as their income declines. Even though people with more money buy more things (and therefore pay more total GST), people with less money pay a higher proportion compared to their income. So the less money you have, the more you are proportionately penalized by a flat consumer tax.
Cars and class
Gas tends to be an inelastic product, meaning that a change in price does not affect demand (unless that change is dramatic or demand is measured over a long period). Gas is particularly inelastic for those living in suburban areas with little to no access to public transit or other transportation options. This means that when taxes on gas go up, people are unlikely to be able to reduce their driving enough to make up the difference. This is overlooked in many of the debates in the environmental NGO world. It is not that people are unwilling to reduce their driving or seek out other forms of transportation — they are unable to do so.
The Liberals have promised rebates to to help individuals offset the costs, but as with GST credits, rebates don’t change the perception that life is getting more expensive. There is also the added moral element, in which the Liberals have argued that the rebates allow people to make better choices — like choosing public transit over cars, or retrofitting homes for greater energy efficiency. The rebate thus downloads change onto individuals, and is held over our heads like a carrot that gets bigger the more we are able to cut from our consumption. Personally, I have yet to see where a lot of these choices exist in the suburbs.
Another reason the carbon tax is regressive also happens to be the latest rage in climate strategy: the electric car. The electric car is seen by many as an important tool in combating emissions, easier than fighting for better transit or affordable and social housing. But the cost of electric cars is still prohibitive, and a few subsidies here and there are unlikely to change this. The wealthy who can access electric cars will be unaffected by the carbon tax in terms of driving (but will probably still receive the carbon rebate).
So again, who is going to be paying the carbon tax? Working class people living in the suburbs who can’t afford EVs, can’t afford to “choose better,” and also can’t afford to live in communities with walkable grocery stores.
Radical transformation needed
Those of us on the left can, and should, oppose the Liberal carbon tax. At the same time, we need to support and acknowledge the concerns of working people who live in the suburbs because they have to, commuting between jobs and homes that are far apart.
To talk about climate change strategies is to talk about land use and planning, infrastructure, affordable housing, jobs and decent wages, and food security. We can address carbon taxes within a framework that understands how addressing climate change requires a complete transformation of capitalist society. It means we have to show people that individually they are not the problem; the society that creates limited options is the problem. Show them that they are right to be angry about a tax that narrows their lives but does little to challenge the biggest polluters.
The answer is always the same: tax the wealthy, tax the polluters, fight the capitalists, build the alternatives. Come up with a climate strategy that is not beholden to corrupt sectors like oil and gas, that understands proportionate responsibility and decolonization, and we’ll be in a better position to come up with the radical transformation we really need to get us out of this climate crisis.
Caitlin Craven is a PhD in International Relations working in the environmental non-profit sector in Hamilton, Ontario. All views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the position of any organization.