As P.T. Barnum is so famously credited with observing a century and half ago, Americans can be a surprisingly credulous people. Whether it’s a circus sideshow curiosity, a new cure-all elixir or a supposedly surefire “get rich” scheme, ours is a nation of hopeful people who like to believe in and celebrate the claims of convincing and seemingly successful salespeople, while averting our eyes from their transgressions and excesses.
Witness the excitement with which the recent suborbital space flights of billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have been met in many circles. While some critics have rightfully panned the flights as wasteful exercises in egomania, millions of others have looked on with awe and admiration.
“Wow!” goes this thinking. “Isn’t that awesome? That could be me!”
Never mind the thousands of Amazon workers and other employees in the corporate conglomerates the two men lead who get by on lousy pay and SNAP benefits. We see the shiny object that marks the great person’s “success” and set aside concerns for the broader picture.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a similar phenomenon has been at play in another important and parallel area of modern discourse in recent decades: tax policy.
In this case, the shiny object that captures our attention are the taxes we pay to government and, especially in recent years, the tax cuts that are championed by politicians – usually of the political right.
We see those tax cuts and the ever-lower rates they produce and imagine that we, like the “successful” people and organizations promoting them, will be similarly successful – “better off” with “more money in our pockets.”
Unfortunately, as with billionaire spaceflights, this simplistic obsession with public taxes and tax rates tends to promote a kind of perverse myopia toward less visible, but nonetheless massive and truly confiscatory “taxes” that we all pay in the form of crumbling public infrastructure and declining societal well-being.
And in early 21st century America the most pernicious and destructive of these taxes – a deeply regressive tax that dwarfs all others in scope and scale – is what we might properly dub the “global climate tax.”
As veteran New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observed recently in a powerful and frightening column, our planet is experiencing a cascading series of increasingly dire events in 2021 that are directly attributable to the global climate emergency.
Simply put, the planet is in crisis right now and absent urgent, heroic, and unprecedented international cooperation, it’s going to get much worse and soon.
What’s more, this is a tax that all of us are paying and will continue to pay. Oh sure, one suspects that Branson and Bezos will be able to avoid its worst impacts by walling themselves off on private islands – or more likely, gated estates well above sea level – but the vast majority of the rest of us (and especially our children and grandchildren) will pay an astronomical price.
Already, the International Monetary Fund estimates that humans pay a $5-plus trillion each year as a subsidy of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, as the news site Marketplace reported earlier this year, a report from Swiss Re, one of the largest insurance providers in the world, predicts that climate emergency and its many destructive impacts – rising temperatures, higher sea levels, falling crop yields, wildfires – will likely “reduce global wealth significantly by 2050. According to the report, climate change could eliminate as much as 14% of the global economic output in the space of 30 years.” This during a 30-year period in which global human population is expected to increase by 25% to nearly 10 billion.
And the global climate tax bill won’t be confined to mere economic loss. The pressure brought on by declining biodiversity, deteriorating living conditions and a rising tide of climate refugees will almost certainly contribute to higher levels of social and political dysfunction, unrest and conflict.
There is, it must be conceded, plenty of blame to go around – both globally and domestically – for this oppressive, terrifying, and centuries-in-the-making tax on humanity. People and politicians of all ideological persuasions – Democrats and Republicans, capitalists and communists, supporters of democracy and autocracy – bear responsibility for having ignored this tax for too long.
But in 2021 there can be no doubt that the chief defenders of preserving and, indeed, dramatically raising the global climate tax inhabit the political right. These are the politicians, think tanks, media outlets, corporations and voters who deny the reality of climate change, defend or excuse our addiction to fossil fuels, resist a rapid transition to a green economy, and crusade incessantly to slash the amounts we pay to support public services and structures – services and structures that cost a tiny fragment of the global climate tax and that could, if properly and aggressively applied, help dramatically reduce it.
And as the climate emergency grows more urgent, the most important question facing our species during the third decade of the century is whether it will awaken to the true nature of the Barnum-like shell game they are playing before it’s too late.