When Popular Support Isn't Enough: Why Canada has a carbon price and the US doesn’t (yet)

Ruby is a senior at Northeastern University pursuing her B.S. in Economics and Math, with a focus on environmental policy and sustainable food systems. She was a Northeast Fellow with Our Climate in the spring, and is currently a Policy and Research Fellow with Our Climate's partner, Climate XChange.


Canada and the United States share similar economies, partisan divides, and a growing public support for addressing climate change. However, despite support from a whopping 68% of adult citizens, the US has yet to pass a national carbon tax. Meanwhile, on January 1st, 2019, Canada enacted the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, one of the highest national carbon prices in the world with a modest 49% popular support. 

So why doesn’t a country with higher support for a carbon tax actually have one? Because America runs on money, especially fossil fuel money. For decades, the industry and its associated think tanks, PACs, and various organizations have spent an unmatched amount of money to fund climate denial and campaigns against politicians who and policies that address climate change. For carbon pricing, it is no different.

Figure 1: Estimated % of US adults that support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax

Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Yale Opinion Maps, 2018.

Figure 2: Estimated % of Canadian adults that support increased taxes on carbon based fuels

Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Yale Climate Opinion Maps, Canada, 2016.

Take a recent example: Washington state ballot Initiative 1631. Even with big name supporters like the Nature Conservancy, Bill Gates and Washington’s governor Jay Inslee, the Clean Air, Clean Energy Washington campaign and tireless grassroots efforts by advocates like Our Climate, this ballot initiative was defeated 1,340,725 (43%) to 1,745,703 (57%). But earning a “No on 1631” cost fossil fuel companies a wopping $30 million, the largest amount of money spent on a campaign in the state’s history. BP America alone donated $13.5 million — almost as much as the entire “Yes” coalition could muster. Koch Industries alone donated almost $1 million to the campaign against Initiative 1631.

Compare this 2-year spending budget to the approximately $4 million (USD) total that the industry spent on elections in neighboring British Columbia over a full 8 year period from 2008-2015. America runs on money, indeed.

And this money obscures an impressive amount of public support for climate action. According to the Yale Climate Opinions Map, the national average of adults that support a carbon tax in the United States is 68% — almost as high as the percentage of adults who think that the Earth is getting warmer. Even in Wyoming and West Virginia, the United State’s largest producers of coal, the majority of adults support a carbon tax.

These data indicate that industry has co-opted the public dialogue. Through their influence, US politicians are scared to even say the word “tax” despite majority public support, while Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau made enacting a carbon tax a national mandate on ethical grounds with 20% less public backing. 

So this is where we advocates, especially young advocates come in. By meeting with our legislators in person or by phone, we can disrupt the fossil fuel industry’s influence on our leaders and shed light on their attempts to hide public support. They need to know that British Columbia's carbon tax has grown its economy, decreased its greenhouse gas emissions, and paved the way for Canadian national policy. 

We have the potential to learn from Canada’s example by using states as laboratories for nationwide policy. Right now, there are active carbon pricing campaigns in 26 states in the United States, and 13 of them have introduced carbon pricing bills for the 2019 legislative session. We can help states implement their own policies that can erode the stranglehold of corporate money on our national dialogue and set an example for the national policy we so desperately need. 



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