Why Is the New York Times Misleading the Public About a Carbon Tax?

As the UN climate summit in Paris hits the halfway point, support is building for basing climate policy on carbon taxes.

One sign is the avowedly pro-carbon tax letter to the UN climate negotiators from Nobel laureates and former Secretaries of Energy and State, released last Sunday. Another is the more cautious but unmistakable call by President Obama on Tuesday to "put a price on it" ― "it" being the carbon emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes that have already begun to wreck the climate.

With carbon tax momentum growing, it's a given that fossil fuel barons like the Koch Brothers will seek to discredit the idea. What's less clear is why the New York Times and CBS News are playing into their hands.

If that sounds overstated, check out this question in last Monday's NY Times - CBS climate poll: Do you favor increasing taxes on electricity so people use less of it?

Ouch. The poll may as well have asked for a show of hands in favor of more muggings. The phrasing of the question deeply misconstrues the purpose and impact of taxing carbon, and paints an incorrect picture of the level of support for such a policy.

It's true that carbon taxes will raise electricity prices, and that will make people use less. But that's not the whole story. First, taxing fossil fuels will give energy producers strong financial incentives to switch to the clean energy that most Americans long for. Second, the proceeds from that tax can be used to help families absorb the bump in their energy bills without missing a beat.

The fact is that carbon taxes operate at the producer level. In electricity, the biggest source of carbon emissions, a carbon tax will give zero-carbon solar panels and wind turbines the edge they need over coal and other carbon-spewing fossil fuels. Electricity bills will go up, but not for long, given how quickly tech improvements are driving down clean-energy costs.

Moreover, under the kind of carbon tax backed by most advocates, the revenue from taxing fossil fuels turns into income for American families. Distributing carbon tax revenues in equal amounts to every U.S. household will put more money back than the tax will take away, on average. The wealthy will take a hit since they consume the most carbon, but most of us will come out ahead.

These silver linings aren't incidental to carbon taxing, they're central features. They're key to why support for carbon taxes unites experts from across the political spectrum, as shown by the bipartisan list of economists and scientists who signed the pro-carbon tax letter. But none of this is even hinted at in the Times/CBS poll. The wording of the question clearly implies that a carbon tax would be all take and no give. It's no surprise that 4 out of 5 respondents rejected the proposition.

The one time Americans were asked about a carbon tax that returns revenues equally and fairly -- in a poll earlier this year by researchers at Stanford University -- they supported it by 2 to 1. Ironically, other results from the Stanford poll, including strong support for climate action among Hispanics, and rising support from Republicans, were accorded front-page stories in, wait for it, the New York Times.

With its new poll, was the Times drinking the fossil fuel industry's Kool-Aid? Or merely allowing its editors' cynicism about the political opportunity for a carbon tax to infect their polling questions?

Whatever the reason, the Times isn't just doing a disservice to its readers. It's undermining a crucial opportunity for world leaders to prioritize the path that a growing chorus of experts agree has "greater potential to combat global warming than any other policy."

Charles Komanoff is the director of the Carbon Tax Center.