THE NEW YORK TIMES

Behavioral Contagion Could Spread the Benefits of a Carbon Tax

Behavioral Contagion Could Spread the Benefits of a Carbon Tax 1024 776 Lobby Climatique Citoyen - CCL France

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Economic view

It’s not too late to fight climate change with a long-overdue policy that would have surprisingly broad impact, an economist says.

By Robert H. Frank

  • Aug. 19, 2020

« Robert H. Frank, un professeur en économie à l’université américain Cornell, explique dans le New York Times comment une contribution carbone peut changer des comportements individuels par « contagion. » En résumé, cela veut dire que le changement de comportement d’une personne crée un exemple qui inspirera d’autres personnes. Comme exemple, il cite le tabagisme : l’indicateur le plus précis qu’une personne fume est le nombre d’amis qu’il ou elle a qui fument eux-mêmes (il note aussi qu’une tendance similaire existe pour la consommation de viande). Il cite aussi une étude de Bryan Bollinger et Kenneth Gillingham, menée en 2012, qui a prouvé que l’installation de panneaux solaires par une famille donne lieu à une nouvelle installation par une autre famille dans les 4 mois suivants. Cet effet devient vite exponentiel, de sorte qu’après 2 ans, l’installation initiale peut donner lieu à 32 autres au total. Du coup, si une taxe carbone incite une poignée d’individus à changer leurs modes de vie, cela pourrait avoir un effet boule de neige conduisant à des progrès rapides. Pourtant, M. Frank avertit qu’une contribution carbone isolée augmenterait les inégalités. Par conséquent, il déclare la nécessité d’une politique de redistribution, et, en particulier, plaide pour renverser les recettes de la contribution carbone aux citoyen.ne.s sous la forme d’un dividende mensuel. » John Ploeg

Meredith Miotke

The United States has been stalled in its approach to climate change, and with attention so heavily focused on the coronavirus pandemic, this may seem an inauspicious moment for action.

But the shock of the pandemic hasn’t merely upended people’s lives. It may also open doors to policy changes previously considered beyond reach. Economic analysis can help identify the most promising opportunities among them.

The economics of climate change is straightforward. Earth is warming both because greenhouse gases are costly to eliminate and because governments have permitted people to emit them into the atmosphere without penalty.

The classical remedy is a carbon tax, a fee on the carbon content of fossil fuels. Generally levied where fuels are extracted or imported, it discourages carbon emissions by making goods with larger carbon footprints more expensive. The World Bank reports that as of 2019, 57 local, regional and national governments have either enacted some form of carbon tax or plan to do so. When people must pay for their emissions, they quickly discover creative ways to reduce them.

Why, then, hasn’t the United States adopted a carbon tax? One hurdle is the fear that emissions would fall too slowly in response to a carbon tax, that more direct measures are needed. Another difficulty is that political leaders have reason to fear voter opposition to taxation of any kind. But there are persuasive rejoinders to both objections.

Regarding the first, critics are correct that a carbon tax alone won’t parry the climate threat. It is also true that as creatures of habit, humans tend to change their behavior only slowly, even in the face of significant financial incentives. But even small changes in behavior are greatly amplified by behavioral contagion — the social scientist’s term for how ideas and behaviors spread from person to person like infectious diseases. And if a carbon tax were to shift the behavior of some individuals now, those changes would quickly spread more widely.

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