6 Proposal

Remember when we were talking about the East Palestine train derailment, we became interested in prediction questions, such as:

  • "What would happen if hot-boxes were placed closer together on the track?"
  • "What would happen if freight companies used vibration sensors?"

These kinds of predictions often lead to proposals, from "What would happen if...?" to "What we should do is..."

However, predictions, are purely arguments about future reality, whereas proposals are heavily based on values: what result do we want?

France, Charente-Maritime

For example, here's a causal argument for global warming:

  • "If humans keep putting large amounts of greenhouse gases such as CO2 into the atmosphere, then the atmosphere will get warmer, which will create a variety of harmful and dangerous effects, including droughts, floods, fires, cyclones, famines, forced migration, and war."

This leads to a valuational argument:

  • "Increased suffering, misery and death are bad social outcomes."

Which in turn invites a proposal question:

  • "So what do we do about it?"

With a complex, civilisation-scale problem like global warming, it’s natural that many people have different and conflicting proposals.

One common proposal is for a carbon tax.

Here's an example of a carbon tax proposal. Can you see where the argument uses cause & effect reasoning and where it uses criteria & match?

Mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore. While the extent to which climate change is due to man-made causes can be questioned, the risks associated with future warming are too big and should be hedged. At least we need an insurance policy.

Any climate solution should be based on sound economic analysis and embody the principles of free markets and limited government. As this paper argues, such a plan could strengthen our economy, benefit working-class Americans, reduce regulations, protect our natural heritage, and consolidate a new era of Republican leadership. These benefits accrue regardless of one’s views on climate science. 

Four pillars of a carbon dividends plan

1. A gradually increasing carbon tax

2. Carbon dividends for all Americans

3. Border carbon adjustments

4. Significant regulatory simplification

According to this writer, what criteria are necessary for a good climate solution?

Jame Baker opens with cause & effect reasoning:

  • Mounting evidence of climate change has created risks so large that they require a response

He then establishes a range of criteria for a good climate solution:

  • Based on sound economic analysis
  • Embody the principles of free markets and limited government

Then he lists some causal effects that are also values-based criteria for a sound plan. A good plan should:

  • Strengthen economy
  • Benefit working class
  • Reduce regulations
  • Protect natual heritage
  • Consolidate Republican leadership

The final causal claim is that the benefits will accrue regardless of personal views on climate science, and then snippet lists the four proposed actions (which we'll discuss in a moment).

This example shows how proposals are often causal arguments wrapped inside valuational arguments.

  • The criteria & match valuational part explains why this is a good plan.
  • The cause & effect causal part explains how and why it will work. 

For example, let's look at the first "pillar" of the plan. Does this part of the proposal use more causal or valuational reasoning?


The first pillar of a carbon dividends plan is a gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions, to be implemented at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy, meaning the mine, well or port. Economists are nearly unanimous in their belief that a carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce carbon emissions. A sensible carbon tax might begin at $40 a ton and increase steadily over time, sending a powerful signal to businesses and consumers, while generating revenue to reward Americans for decreasing their collective carbon footprint.

There's a bit of criteria-based reasoning: a carbon tax is efficient and effective

But most of the reasoning is causal: a tax at the point where carbon enters the economy will send a signal to businesses (meaning, change their behaviour) while also generating revenue for Americans.

Compare with this snippet, where Baker explains one reason why a carbon tax would help working-class Americans:


Redirecting Populism

Increasingly, voters feel that the American political and economic system is rigged against their interests. Populism threatens the current policy consensus in favor of liberalized trade and investment. The best remedy is to redirect this populist energy in a socially beneficial direction. Carbon dividends can do just that based on a populist rationale: We the People deserve to be compensated when others impose climate risks and emit heat-trapping gases into our shared atmosphere. The new ground rules make intuitive sense: the more one pollutes, the more one pays; the less one pollutes, the more one comes out ahead. This, for once, would tip the economic scales towards the interests of the little guy.

The snippet reminds us of one of the necessary criteria for a good plan:

  • Helping working-class Americans

Then it says the proposal will do that by:

  • Redirecting populism

To explain how those two ideas are linked, the snippet describes additional requirements and features:

  • The best remedy is to redirect populist energy in a socially beneficial direction
  • Carbon dividends provide a populist rationale
  • We the people deserve to be compensated when others impose risks

And it finally explains some causal reasoning:

  • The more one pollutes, the more one pays
  • This method would tip the scales in favour of the little guy

Hurricane Sandy destruction

The problem with proposals on contested issues is that people disagree with each other.

They can disagree about what would actually happen and whether or not it is a good idea.

For example, this next snippet is an article from David Roberts at Vox. What does he think about carbon tax proposals?

What is the most important policy tool for fighting climate change? Ask just about any economist and the answer will be the same: a price on carbon emissions.

Not only is there a robust consensus among economists, but they have been remarkably successful in spreading the gospel to the wider world as well. Climate activists, wonks, funders, politicians, progressives, and even conservatives (the few who take climate seriously) all sing from the same hymnal. It has become conventional wisdom that a price on carbon is the sine qua non of serious climate policy.

But it is worth keeping carbon pricing in perspective. It has become invested with such symbolic significance that it is inspiring some unhelpful purism on policy and magical thinking on politics.

He agrees a carbon tax would be good.

So what's the problem?

We know price-based policies like taxes (and cap-and-trade programs) can efficiently generate marginal changes. Economists don't just love them because of theory; they work, especially in bounded markets where demand is elastic or substitution is cheap. The economic literature on that score is copious.

But carbon isn't just one pollutant from one product category. It's the whole economy. The whole world economy. Can price-based policies drive economy-wide energy transitions?

History doesn't seem to offer any examples. Large-scale energy transitions of the past have generally been driven by industrial policy and technology innovation; none have been driven by increases in the prices of existing energy sources.

He agrees that a carbon tax will work, but predicts it the impact will not be large enough.

And why is the scale of the impact a problem?

It is somewhat misleading to describe the goal of climate change mitigation as "reducing carbon emissions." Reducing carbon emissions is easy; lots of policies can do that.

We need to reduce emissions a lot — to zero, or close to it — as fast as possible. That's going to require more than changes at the margins. It's going to require phasing out virtually our entire installed industrial base and replacing it with new, low-carbon technologies and practices. It's going to require an explosion of innovation and building, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Industrial Revolution — only much, much faster, constrained by a tight carbon budget.

We can see that Roberts is introducing new criteria that were not in Baker's proposal: a good plan must: 

  • Reduce emissions to almost zero
  • Do it faster than the Industrial Revolution
  • Achieve it while constrained by a tight carbon budget

And how does a carbon tax match those criteria?

Slowing climate change will require a suite of policies, regulatory reforms, and investments. Carbon pricing will be an important part of that portfolio. But only a part. It is not the only legitimate climate policy, the one true sign of seriousness on global warming, or a substitute for the difficult and painstaking political work that will be required to transition to a sustainable energy system.

I have no interest in a carbon-pricing backlash. But maybe a sidelash — a reality check.

  • Baker's proposal suggests that a carbon tax is the main, perhaps even the only, action that needs to be taken.
  • Roberts' proposal says a carbon tax is good, but it’s not sufficient. In fact, it’s only a small part of the solution.

Which argument do you find more convincing?

Rigs offshore Oil refinery

To recap

  • Predictions are about reality.
    • They are cause & effect arguments about what will happen in the future: “If A happens, then B will happen, which will cause C…” 
  • Proposals are about values.
    • They are about what we should do in the future, and they always use some form of criteria & match reasoning because they are ultimately about what is good/bad or right/wrong.

That said, proposal arguments will often incorporate predictions and cause & effect reasoning to make their case.

What is something you would propose?

Do you have even a small proposal you'd like to make? (I propose we should wash small plastic lids in the sink instead of in the dishwasher.)

Why do you propose it? What’s the benefit it brings and/or harm it prevents? Why would it work?