By Justin Worland
The city of La Mesa seems on the surface to be as progressive as they come. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2:1 margin—and, generally speaking, the San Diego suburb votes bright blue. The city council is working to build low-income apartments on a vacant lot downtown that until recently housed a police station, and, four years ago, it adopted a plan committed to sharp reductions in local greenhouse-gas emissions.
It’s the kind of place where someone like Laura Lothian, who is cut from the cloth of conservative cable news, might not be the most popular. In a recent conversation on the patio of her hillside home, she railed against COVID-19 shutdowns and unisex dressing rooms, and told me with delight about her “intimate” meal with “MTG”—Marjorie Taylor Greene, a U.S. Representative from Georgia known for trumpeting far-right conspiracy theories.
But it turns out Lothian is just what progressive La Mesa was looking for. In November, she clinched an unlikely electoral victory, becoming La Mesa’s newest city councillor, by focusing on a single issue: opposing a new road-usage fee, which would charge people for every mile they drive. With gas prices on the rise and inflation reaching the highest level in decades, Lothian gambled that voters would put their pocketbook concerns above their anxieties about climate change. The bet paid off. “This issue brought out everybody—and it changed things,” she says.
The road-usage fee is hardly out of left field. It’s part of a $160 billion plan to restructure San Diego County’s transportation system, spearheaded by the regional planning authority, the San Diego Association of Governments, also known as SANDAG. More than a dozen states are currently considering similar fees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The idea is straightforward: by levying a small fee on miles driven, state and local governments can recoup some of the revenue lost in gas taxes, which are declining as more cars go electric, while simultaneously pushing people to use cleaner methods of getting around, like public transit or rideshares. In San Diego, revenue from the new fee would fund a slew of local, emissions-reducing projects.
And so we return to the central challenge facing climate policy in democratic societies across the globe: how do leaders get voters to accept an immediate burden, in the form of higher prices, in exchange for a diffuse, future benefit—mitigating catastrophic global crisis. Increasingly, polls show that the majority of Americans want the federal government to do more to combat climate change, and yet those same polls show that average Americans are only willing to pay a nominal amount to address it.
“It’s an unpopular thing to say, but energy prices have been too low for a long time,” says Michael Greenstone, the director of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute and a former chief economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Barack Obama. “As countries around the world, and more generally societies, begin to make it more complicated to produce energy from fossil fuels, prices are going to go up—and we actually want them to.”
If we accept that the price of fossil fuels needs to rise, and thus that the price of carbon-intensive activities, like flying and driving, should also rise, then the question becomes: How do governments manage those cost increases? Many economists, Greenstone included, suggest that such policies should be accompanied by a rebate for the most vulnerable. That could come in the form of checks or debit cards, or direct-deposited cash, which is how tens of millions of Americans received stimulus money during the pandemic. Others suggest a complex policy suite that funds everything from bus passes to job retraining.