This resolution potentially touches upon a wide range of issues spawned from the controversy surrounding global warming, dependency upon fossil fuels, macro and microeconomics, and the role of government. Briefly, a carbon tax is a tax imposed upon carbon emissions which are usually released by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil (and its by-products) and natural gas). Combustion of carbon produces compounds such as carbon dioxide which is a so-called "greenhouse gas" (GHG) blamed for global warming. In fact, this is the primary issue being addressed by this resolution: the idea that a tax on carbon emissions can serve as an effective means to reduce the production of carbon emissions and thus alter the trend toward global-warming and its associated harms. Just to clarify, the tax may also be levied on carbon in other forms since it is not always easy to directly measure targeted emissions. For example, an oil company's carbon products are burned in consumer vehicles which would be very difficult to directly measure for tax purposes. So, the government can instead tax the crude oil itself, noting a defined relationship between the amount of crude converted to consumer products and the amount of emissions those consumer products release.
The topic of taxation can be extremely complex and the complexity would be multiplied if the resolution had been worded, "Resolved: States should adopt a carbon tax." U.S. students, therefore, can focus solely on the United States and the system of taxation they may be somewhat vaguely familiar with since they encounter it whenever they purchase consumer products. Since the discussion of taxes can be quite involved (especially in the U.S. where consumers and corporations employ multitudes of tax professionals to help them wade through the complexity) the debaters approach to the topic should be measured. Public Forum debate is specifically aimed toward the non-specialist judge, in other words, everyday parents from all types of backgrounds. Since most judges are tax-paying adults they already have a practical understanding of taxes and their effect on spending and more broadly, the economy. Also, remember, the extended knowledge many judges will possess on the topic of taxation will come, not from economists and professors of economics, but from politicians and pundits. This is not a bad thing. It is a normal thing and debaters should adjust their contentions appropriately. Besides, four minutes is a very short time in which to present complex data.
In my opinion, the role of government is not a trivial side-issue in this resolution although it may lead to a lot of non-topical, Lincoln-Douglas-like argumentation. Nevertheless, one may consider the carbon tax as a kind of punitive action, designed to penalize carbon consumers and there is always the question of what should the government do with the tax money? I think it is clear the federal government has an interest in regulating various kinds of emissions which travel across state lines and affect the well-being of citizens. But I can tell you that many policy debate counter-plans have effectively argued that these kinds of federal policies harm federalism and are best managed by state governments and this would in-fact be a legitimate Con argument if counter-plans could be run without the Pro team screaming about abuse and citing NSDA rules. Proponents of the carbon tax will not see it as a punishment for carbon emission. It will be presented in a more positive light as an incentive to reduce carbon emissions and develop alternative sources for energy as well as providing a lucrative revenue stream.
Discussion of alternative energy sources is explicitly linked to the topic of U.S. dependency on fossil fuels in general, and dependency upon foreign sources of fossil fuels specifically. There are national security interests at stake when we talk about dependency upon foreign oil and the debate could easily fall off the cliff of topicality, although it would certainly be a very interesting descent. Still, I do think the Pro can leverage advantages from reducing carbon emissions such as breaking dependency on foreign oil, and a myriad of feel-good potentials such as saving polar-bears from extinction or mitigating any number of harms arising from runaway, global warming.
The United States federal government
The USFG, as any policy debater can tell you is the combined branches of executive, legislative and judicial. I think we can understand that taxes are established by laws enacted by the Congress (legislative branch), signed and enforced by the executive branch and adjudicated by the courts (judicial branch). This arrangement is in keeping with the principle of the separation of powers and "checks and balances" designed to prevent one branch from assuming more power than the constitution allows. I don't think we need to spend time defining nor discussing how it works except when it may directly apply to the implementation and enforcement of the carbon tax.
Some may question, why not just define "should adopt" rather than separately define should? While there are some definitions of should which may suggest an obligatory requirement in order to fulfill some duty to moral standards, my reason for isolating the word has another purpose. Use of the word should (as a suggested action or if you prefer, an obligation) permits the assumption Pro has a kind of "fiat" power. Policy kids are taught fiat is Latin for "let it be" which prevents Con from arguing that such a tax will never be passed. The Pro must be able to take a position which permits substantive debate on the merits or harms of the carbon tax. If the Con is permitted to undermine that ground and claim the tax will never pass, then the debate will center around the feasibility of tax passage which is not the intent of the resolution. "Should" permits Pro to take the position, the federal government can and will pass such a tax and so, with that assumption secure, let us now debate the implications.
For this word, I will use one of the meanings supplied by Merriam-Webster: to accept formally and put into effect. Basically, adopting a tax means legally establishing and implementing the tax.
According to Merriam-Webster, tax, as a noun, is "a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes". A carbon tax, in this context is a federally mandated cost attached to the emission of by-products of carbon combustion or more generally the acquisition or use of carbon products which eventual result release of targeted emissions.
A carbon tax is a form of explicit carbon pricing; it refers to a tax directly linked to the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, often expressed as a value per tonne CO2 equivalent (per tCO2e). Carbon taxes provide certainty in regard to the marginal cost faced by emitters per tCO2e, but do not guarantee a maximum level of emission reductions, unlike an emissions trading scheme. However, this economic instrument can be used to achieve a cost‐effective reduction in emissions. Since a carbon tax puts a price on each tonne of GHG emitted, it sends a price signal that gradually cause a market response across an entire economy, creating incentives for emitters to shift to less greenhouse‐gas intensive ways of production and ultimately resulting in reduced emissions. [src: World Bank (undated)]
Because other proposals for inducing reductions in carbon emissions have been proposed I think I should at least review one of the proposals that has been discussed in Congress. The so-called Cap-and-Trade proposal garnered serious consideration and has been adopted by some nations. Under this proposal, the government establishes overall emissions quotas (the cap) for various industries or sources and then requires the purchase of permits which grant rights to release the controlled gases in quantities specified by the permits. Any entity which wishes to increase its permitted allocation may then buy (or trade) additional allocations from other permit holders. The theory is market forces driven by supply and demand will set the price and provide incentive for industry to find alternative sources of energy. Of course the authority can manipulate the market by adjusting the caps periodically. It is believed that some industries will be able to find ways to reduce emissions quickly and cheaply relative to others and thus the early deductions in overall emissions will be made at the least cost as opposed to laws which mandate specific reductions across broad categories of industries. The carbon tax does not impose any caps. It simply imposes a cost to carbon usage which will also drive the market to seek alternatives. And once again, of course, the government can adjust the tax rate as political expediency demands. I am sure my explanation is overly simplified but those who desire may research more deeply.
For the Pro position, click here.