Fighting global warming on the backs of the workers

Writing in The Washington Post, economist Robert Samuelson touts ever-rising gasoline prices as the solution to global warming.

On the one hand, some of America’s leading politicians condemn high gasoline prices and contend that they stem from “gouging” by oil companies. On the other, many of the same politicians warn against global warming and implore us to curb our use of fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

Guess what: These crowd-pleasing proclamations are contradictory. Anyone fearful of global warming should cheer higher gasoline prices, because much higher prices represent precisely the sort of powerful incentive needed to push consumers toward more fuel-efficient vehicles and to persuade the auto industry to produce them in large numbers. Bravo for higher prices!

Now in a country with a larger degree of economic equality– or if automobile travel was, as in days gone by, a relative luxury enjoyed mostly by the well-to-do– Samuelson’s position might make sense.

But in a country where tens of millions of low-income workers depend on cars to get to work, to stores, to doctors and for other necessary travel, the Samuelson approach in downright regressive. Especially in rural and suburban areas, reasonably-priced and reliable public transportation is not always an option.

When you’re trying to raise a family on a modest income, the ever-rising cost of gasoline means less money for other necessities. And not everyone driving an old gas-eating clunker can afford to trade it in for the latest fuel-efficient model. (A new 55-miles-per-gallon Prius costs in the range of $20,000.)

While increasing fuel costs cause real hardship for those with low incomes, those at the other end of the economic scale barely notice. If you can just as easily pay $10 for a gallon of gas as you’re now paying $3.50, what’s your incentive for changing your driving habits?

None of this means that reducing gasoline consumption across the board is unnecessary. Rather, for a whole host of environmental and geopolitical reasons (think Iran, for example), it’s urgent.

But as even Samuelson briefly concedes, “It’s true that oil companies will reap eye-popping profits from high prices.” Yes. And before putting yet more of a burden on those who can least afford it, how about taking a closer look at that?