Could this city lead the way with a carbon tax? And do we need a new jail?

Sup. John Avalos wants to pay for tree maintenance with a carbon tax
Sup. John Avalos wants to pay for tree maintenance with a carbon tax

By Tim Redmond

NOVEMBER 30, 2015 – I was on the road over the holiday, and doing what I always do on the road, which is listen to NPR, and I heard a great interview with James Hansen, the NASA climate scientists who first raised the alarm about global climate change.

He talked a bit about what it was like to say that humans were frying the planet back in the 1980s, when the whole idea seemed heretical, but mostly he talked about the Paris summit, and the utter failure of anyone leading any major country to talk about the only viable solutions that could prevent catastrophic sea-level rise.

The (conservative) economists who worry about the impacts of rapid reductions in the use of fossil fuels ought to be worried about something else, he noted: Many of the world’s biggest and most important cities are going to be underwater in 30 years if things don’t change quickly. That will have a much greater impact on the global GDP (and the profits of big corporations) than a modest reduction in emissions.

Hansen’s predictions have been largely accurate in the past, and now he’s talking about things like 10-20 meter rises in sea level, which would pretty much inundate New York, London, Washington DC, Miami, Beijing … the list goes on. I am going to need a boat to get from Bernal Hill to Twin Peaks.

This is real.

And, he said, there’s a simple way to turn it around: A direct tax on carbon, levied at the wellhead or the mine or the docks where it’s imported. Let the money go directly to the people, in the form of dividends – that way, the working-class folks who see gas prices go up will have the cash to offset those prices. In fact, he said, the studies he’s seen show that most people in the US (and presumable other industrialized countries) will be better off after the tax-and-dividend plan, the only exception being the very rich. So it would have a progressive economic impact.

The serious environmental and economic analysts looking at the Paris talks say that the world needs to adopt a “carbon budget” – that is, we should all agree that there’s a finite amount of additional carbon that can be absorbed in the atmosphere, and then discuss how to divide up that allocation.

As the NY Times puts it,

The group [of UN scientists] calculated a budget that can be thought of as something like — to use another food metaphor — a carbon pie, with the central question being: How can it be carved up fairly?

The problem is that about two-thirds of the pie has already been eaten by a handful of rich countries, plus China. At current rates, the remainder of it will be gone in 30 years or less. Many poor countries are crowding around the table, pleading for a sliver, but the big emitting countries insist on laying claim to most of the rest of the pie.

You see the political problem.

But Hansen’s solution would use the market to address the allocation: People who want to fly around in private jets pay a high, and gradually increasing, tax for their carbon use, and that goes to subsidize everyone else who is trying to figure out how to pay for the shift to renewables.

There is absolutely zero chance this will pass today’s Republican Congress. But there’s a pretty decent chance that a small-scale, experimental version could be adopted in San Francisco.

Sup. John Avalos has proposed a local version of a carbon tax – to pay to resolve one of those issues that makes everyone who owns a home in San Francisco mad at City Hall.

See, the city has been slowly moving to make property owners take responsibility for street trees. If you own a building in SF, you already have to maintain the sidewalk in front of it (the city owns the sidewalk, but you own the cracks.) Now, block by block, the city is transferring responsibility for the trees, too.

That means homeowners are taking on additional costs – they will have to trim the trees to keep the branches from falling in the street, and repair the damage that the roots do to the sidewalk, curbs, and potentially streets.

I am generally not one to sympathize with the plight of the poor SF property owner. I am one of them, and frankly, we have it pretty good: The value of our investment rises almost by the hour, and our property taxes are way too low and never go up. If you own rental property, you’re doing even better.

So I can live with the tree transfer. But there’s no way to avoid the fact that it’s pissing people off in the neighborhoods.

Sup. Scott Wiener wants to pass a parcel tax of $30 a year to pay for the city to take over all of the city’s trees. Okay, sure: Parcel taxes aren’t perfect (the Bank of America Building gets assessed the same $30 per parcel as I do) but whatever – as long as landlords can’t pass it on to tenants, I can deal.

But Avalos has a much better idea: Pay to maintain and expand the local tree canopy (which is way smaller than what many other cities have) with a tax on carbon.

I’m not sure exactly how it would work, and he’s still figuring out the details, but it could fall into the general realm of what Hansen suggested: Tax the oil companies on every gallon of gas they bring into San Francisco. Tax utility use based on the percentage of PG&E’s mix that’s produced by fossil fuels (and by the way, that would encourage people to sign up for CleanPowerSF, which can offer 100 percent renewables and so would be untaxed, and thus cheaper).

Use the money that’s generated to pay for the city to maintain and plant lots and lots of trees. Trees absorb carbon, and are good for the city. Making it easier and less expensive to have more trees is a good thing.

But so is a tax on carbon – and this could be a major breakthrough for San Francisco. Look for PG&E and the oil companies to start working against it.

BTW: Chuck Nevius at the Chron was a bit critical of the Avalos plan, which he called “vague.” I present, without comment, the back and forth between the supe and the columnist, which I pulled of the Avalos page on Facebook:

AVALOS: Fact Check 101: my morning texting CW Nevius upon reading his lies in the paper.

He said I never talked with Scott Wiener about the legislation I have asked to be drafted. The charter Amendment will make the city take back responsibility for street trees and take the burden off of property owners. It will also make growing the urban forest a high priority for SF’s climate action effort.

cal·um·ny (kăl′əm-nē)

  1. pl. cal·um·nies
  2. A false statement maliciously made to injure another’s reputation.
  3. The utterance of maliciously false statements; slander.

Hi Chuck. My ears are burning. FYI. I was talking with Scott about trees years ago and I haven’t drafted anything yet and I’m still talking with him. I’ve never expected anything but half truths and innuendo from you so thank you for living up to my expectations. The carbon tax is for the November 2016 ballot. Er um, I intend to work on these measures in the full light of day that is called the legislative process. You’ll find that my measures will be the more popular ones. The city should not pass on the responsibility of trees to property owners and that’s what my charter amendment will ensure. The carbon tax will be a general tax and will add to the 100s of millions I have already added to the city budget with the transfer tax on commercial property and the gross receipts tax. The charter amendment will “capture” the carbon tax revenue to help pay for expanding the city’s gutted street tree program and meet our climate goals.

Good environmental stuff.

I don’t expect you to listen to a word I say nor I have you not let me down in my expectations but I always believe it responsible of me to set the record straight. Happy calumnizing!

I also told Scott about the carbon tax and its source of revenue for trees months ago.

Nevius: Ok. That’s good info. Was still operating under previous edict that you weren’t going to talk to me any more. If that’s changed will check in next time.

Me: It’s kind of a catch 22

Nevius: Well not for me. It is standard to contact people regardless. I always try to but in this case it seemed pointless. If that’s not true will make the effort.

Me: I know u didn’t talk with Scott so it looks like you just made things up. My experience is you just make things up anyways and it hasn’t made a shred of difference in the accuracy of your reporting whether I talk to you or not.

Nevius: Ok. So you are not talking. Correct?

Me:I’m talking to you now to set the record straight but I shouldn’t have to school you about how to do your job ethically.

Nevius: So in future are you responding or is this just to fill out your Facebook page?

Me: No. I get to share with you what I think about your writing and post it for the public to see on my fb page.

Nevius: So are you talking next time or not?

Me: Sorry. Busy working. Unless you can agree not to make stuff up and be an ethical reporter I am happy to do once hell freezes over.



The Board of Supes Government Audit and Oversight Committee holds a hearing Thursday/3 on an issue that’s gotten far too little attention in the past year, as the race for sheriff devolved into discussions about the personal life of Ross Mirkarimi:

How do we reduce the number of people incarcerated in San Francisco? How do we address the mental-health needs of the jail population? Do we really need a new jail?

Sheriff Mirkarimi, who had been a reluctant supporter of a new jail (and I understand that the current facility at the Hall of Justice is a horror show and needs to be closed) started arguing that if the city devoted adequate resources to mental health, we wouldn’t need a new lockup.

In fact, the county jail has become the default housing provider for severely mentally ill people in San Francisco. A huge percentage of the people behind bars are either (a) awaiting trial and can’t afford bail, which means they haven’t been convicted of anything, or (b) have mental-health or substance-abuse issues. If we had (a) bail reform, and (b) a program to deal with mental illness as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue, there’s no way we would need a new jail.

These were among Mirkarimi’s priorities. He’s going to be gone in January, and I have no idea what the new sheriff will be doing. I don’t see her on the list of people who will be testifying at the hearing, but she ought to be answering some serious questions.

The hearing’s at 10:30am in City Hall Room 263.