Yellow Jackets and Fuel Taxes: How NOT to address climate change

I’m more then a little late addressing the Yellow Jacket’s riots in France. However, that’s in large part because I tend to try and focus solely on US politics, instead of the political affairs of foreign governments. However, I was reading an article in New Scientist (from mid-December, I’m a little behind on my reading, kids will do that to you), that got me riled up on the issue, because it tries to normalize the concept of hiking fuel taxes, which could lead to US politicians picking up the idea (although with how well Macron’s proposed tax hike went we are probably safe from that).

The reason behind the author’s support of the tax hikes, climate change. The author, Olive Heffernan, argues that fuel taxes, especially on diesel, are necessary because transportation emissions needs to drop in order to contain global temperature increases. She argues that not only should Macron’s tax hikes stay, but other countries should take note and follow his example.

She goes on to equate an increase on fuel taxes to increases on cigarette taxes, her argument being that they are the same because cigarettes are bad for your health and diesel is bad for the environment, so we just need to get used to the higher taxes to leave the world a better place.

There are a few major problems with Heffernan’s arguments. The first is the idea that cigarette taxes and fuel taxes are even remotely similar. Cigarettes are a nicety, fuel is a necessity. If cigarette prices get too high, you cut back if you can’t afford them. If fuel prices get to high you can’t not go to work. You can’t leave your kids at the sitter because it costs too much to go pick them up. You go on living and cough up the extra money for fuel.

Claiming that France needs higher fuel taxes to curb driving ignores the fact that France already pays an insanely high price for fuel, over 7 dollars a gallon. That’s more than twice what most Americans pay. Additionally, France and the rest of Europe already tax the hell out of fuel. In France, gasoline is taxed at 64 percent, diesel at 59 percent. That means of that 7 dollars a gallon for fuel, 4.52 cents of it goes straight to taxes.

The second problem with Heffernan’s argument is that, in the United States, the average tax for a pack of cigarettes is just over 44 percent of the retail price. That’s 20 percent less then what France pays in taxes for fuel already. And they want to take more.

This of course, ignores the crux of Heffernan’s argument, that these taxes are a necessary evil to combat climate change. The problem is that’s just not true. Yes, global emissions from vehicles need to be brought down to address climate change. But you do that by attacking the companies that are making the vehicles to begin with.

You incentivize their production of all electric and hybrid vehicles, making it more cost effective for the auto manufacturers to make them, and cheaper for the consumer to buy them. And while that takes time to make an impact, there are things you can be doing immediately to combat climate change.

You can ensure that building and HVAC units are upgraded to minimize energy consumption. You can encourage public works projects that protect and expand environmental zones. You can invest in green technology and renewable energies. There is a lot you can be doing.  

But you don’t raise taxes on necessities that are going to have life altering impacts on the lower and middle class. France has given us a blueprint on how NOT to address climate change. And what Heffernan misses is that there is more than one way to skin a goose, and the path France picked is just dead wrong.

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