Can a Border Tax Help Slow a Borderless Crisis?

Unfettered free trade helped get us into the climate crisis. Perhaps there’s some poetic justice if restricting it can help with the solution.
The disastrous flooding in Europe last week is another reminder that the climate crisis is no respecter of borders: carbon (and wildfire smoke) floats above them and roaring rivers crash through them. (And not just in Europe—there was also serious flooding in India and Arizona last week, and in China this week, and we will doubtless see it somewhere else next week, simply because hot air amps up the hydrological cycle: more evaporation, more torrential downpour. It is natural to think that we should try to solve the crisis in a similarly borderless way, except that the entities that organize our political lives, nation-states, are defined by borders, and it’s unlikely that this system will wither away in the decade that scientists have given us to halve our emissions. 

So borders may have to become part of the solution. They should be porous enough to let climate refugees pass—after all, most such migrants are leaving places that didn’t cause the problem for countries, such as this one, which did. But goods may be another matter. As Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, and other climate activists have pointed out, over the past two decades, member states of the European Union have seen their emissions fall, in large measure, because they have outsourced factory production to other countries, as part of a general push toward cheap labor. Now, as the E.U. unveils a more ambitious plan for cutting carbon, and as the world becomes more protectionist, European leaders are starting to get concerned that, if they enact stronger climate measures, even more production will move to places with lower emissions standards. And so, as the Times explained, they’re considering a “radical, and possibly contentious, proposal” that would “impose tariffs on certain imports from countries with less stringent climate-protection rules.” 

Democrats in the U.S. Senate, who are gearing up to pass a major infrastructure bill containing significant climate spending, are starting to have the same fear. It has prompted them to include in the bill a rudimentary call for some form of a “polluter import fee.” Senator Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, said, “The United States and the E.U. have to think in terms of the leadership that we can provide and the message that we have to send to China and other countries that would take advantage of the high standards that we are going to enact.” It should be noted that, because America hasn’t actually passed any standards yet, there is a slight horse-cart problem here; also, it’s a little rich to see the world’s biggest oil exporter worrying about others pushing carbon across borders. But, if we’re lucky, we’re just at an odd transition moment and, one hopes, all this will start to seem more sensible shortly. 

This idea is a version of something that James Hansen, our premier climate scientist, has been suggesting for decades. Writing in the Hill last fall, he called, as he often has, for a fee on carbon, and added that the “most important part” of it would be a “ ‘border adjustment’—a duty on products imported from countries that don’t have an equivalent price on carbon pollution.” Despite the economic utility, the politics of getting such a fee or tax in place remain difficult. (They weren’t helped when a lobbyist for ExxonMobil was caught on video appearing to explain that the oil giant has supported a carbon tax rhetorically because it believes that there’s no way it would pass.) Some form of a “border adjustment” seems more politically possible: the Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump camps have both got past the free-trade consensus that dominated American political life for a generation or more. (Though that old consensus is still reflected in agencies such as the World Trade Organization, which might find itself called upon to arbitrate disputes over a border tax.) 

John Kerry, the U.S. climate czar—whom Joe Biden charged with getting the rest of the world working hard on climate by the time of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, in Glasgow, in November—was reportedly initially worried about carbon tariffs. But, last week, Politico noted that he seems to be softening on some of his areas of concern. And Senate Democrats sound positively insistent—America, Markey said, shouldn’t be “Uncle Sucker” as it starts to get its climate act together. The worst-case scenario: such laws antagonize Asian nations and make international climate coöperation that much harder. The best case: as a Harvard climate expert and former Obama Administration official told the Times, “a carbon border adjustment is most effective if we never have to use it. If we threaten to use it and that means all our trade partners up their game and do a lot more to reduce emissions, then . . . that can be quite important and quite effective.” 

Nothing about the world’s delayed response to the climate crisis really makes sense, and, in some ways, it’s depressing to think that economic nationalism is going to assert itself as a tool here—especially because, as Tom Athanasiou, of the activist think tank EcoEquity, has repeatedly pointed out, the rich countries owe the developing world a huge carbon debt. But we seem to be fighting the climate war with the weapons we’re used to, the nation-state being a prime example. And, because unfettered free trade, if only by expanding the size of the global economy, helped get us into this mess, perhaps there’s some poetic justice if restricting that trade can help with the solution. 

Passing the Mic

Samantha Montano, who teaches at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, is the author of “Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis,” which will be published next month, by Park Row Books. The book, which draws on her long experience in emergency management, argues that “every disaster you have yet to experience in your lifetime has already begun. The threads of risk are spun out over decades, even centuries, until they crescendo into disaster.” (Our conversation has been edited.)