By Jace Longenecker

This piece on voluntary carbon taxes was originally one of the top speeches from Goshen College’s 2020 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest on February 18. Jace is a senior history major from Elkhart, Ind. He makes a compelling argument for voluntary gas taxes–both at the individual level and for programs such as Goshen College’s Study Service Term. 

Listen to the speech

This evening, I’m going to discuss the climate crisis from the perspective of my two disciplines, history and economics. This speech isn’t designed to prove to you that climate change is real, or that you should care about it; I hope that you are already there. Instead, I hope this is an opportunity for you to reflect on your personal ethics with regard to the climate crisis.

Whether we’re talking about rising sea levels, massive plastic consumption and waste or humanity’s addiction to hydrocarbon energy sources, one thing is abundantly clear: the actions and habits of humans, especially in the richest countries in the world, have destabilized our ecosystems and have led to suffering around the world.

When we start thinking about these issues, it’s easy to get overwhelmed; the magnitude of the problem backs us into a corner, and the only escape seems to be withdrawal.

When we talk about climate denial, most of us think about Donald Trump calling climate change a “Chinese Hoax,” or similar denials of real science. However, another kind of denial is far more prevalent: the denial that we have the power to do harm or to effect change.

Doug Kaufman, the director of pastoral ecology for the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, described this problem in a recent article. He wrote: “Active denial is repudiation or rejection, when we heatedly refute the facts of the situation. But denial can also be passive, when we are in some sense aware of a painful reality but avert our gaze or deflect attention.”

Most people aren’t active deniers of human-caused climate change. However, many of us are prone to embrace the passive denial that allows us to shirk the responsibility of action.

Sometimes we feel paralyzed by the need to “clean house” before we are able to deal with the problem of climate change. If this is really the existential threat to human life, doesn’t that imply that we need to change everything we know and do? While massive restructuring will be necessary in order to solve the climate crisis, not everything we’ve ever done or thought needs to be discarded. A few carefully selected actions can focus our energies in ways that are effective.

Looking back may be the best path forward

Last fall, I had the opportunity to work with three professors and two other undergrads on a project sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions. I helped conduct interviews with local Anabaptist people about how their communities were approaching conversation and action on climate change.

Out of those conversations, I learned an important lesson: that our community, because of our proximity to the Anabaptist legacy, might be uniquely poised for action on climate change.

Throughout its history, the Anabaptist movement has been defined by radical faith practice. It was radical in the sense that early Anabaptists practiced a set of beliefs that wasn’t endorsed by the broader culture around them but was rather defined by their own moral reasoning based on their understanding of the early Christian Church.

Whether you grew up Mennonite, or you are new to the Anabaptist story, I’m inviting you to consider a set of tools that Anabaptist history provides in the face of the climate crisis.

First, Anabaptists throughout their history have embraced a faith practice that calls them to think beyond national borders.

Second, early Anabaptists acted out of moral frameworks that were not defined by the state, or by the broader culture around them.

Third, throughout the history of the movement, many Anabaptists have chosen to take decisive moral action at the cost of their own economic benefit, even when abandoning the tenants of their faith would have made things easier.

These tenets of Anabaptism suggest to me that:

  1. Whenever we’re thinking about the climate crisis, we ought to frame our decisions not so much around what we need, but around what the global community needs.
  2. Our actions should be in alignment with our own moral principles, rather than being guided by those of the broader culture or of the state.
  3. And finally, that we should consider not so much what brings us economic gain, but what actions fit our beliefs.

Committing to voluntary carbon taxes

I think these principles are broadly applicable. Today, though, I have a specific example. I’m asking you to consider my take on a proposal that has been advocated by members of our community for a number of years.

First, that each of us would commit to a voluntary carbon tax in two areas of our lives: in the gasoline that we buy for our cars, and in the miles that we fly via airplane. This “tax” wouldn’t be for the government—it would be set aside and spent in aid of organizations fighting climate change.

Second, I argue that Goshen College should commit to paying carbon onsets for every SST and May Term flight we purchase in order to acknowledge some of the true cost of the global education we choose to pursue—even if that means higher costs for these programs.

Thinking beyond national borders

Through the work of Jerrell Ross Richer, an economics professor who spends part of each year as a mission worker in Ecuador, Goshen College is already connected with an indigenous Ecuadorian community called the Cofán. This group is responsible for the protection of a significant area of the Amazon rainforest. Directing money from a voluntary carbon tax to the Cofán Survival Fund incorporates an international solution to a western consumption problem.

Aligning our actions with our moral principles

Our culture values cheap gas. One of the most damaging things that the United States government has done in the face of the climate crisis is to double down on subsidizing fossil fuels. Today, because of domestic fracking investments, the price of a gallon of gas is astonishingly low.

Here’s the problem: The price we see at the tank doesn’t reflect the true cost of the product we’re receiving. Environmental economists describe a difference between the market cost of a product and its true carbon cost, which accounts for the full environmental impact of its extraction and use. When we get products for less than their carbon cost, this is a market failure.

A tax on carbon is one solution to that flaw. Taxes serve a dual purpose: they generate revenue, and they disincentivize activity. Instead of holding our breath for a carbon tax from Congress, we can proactively volunteer that money ourselves. A voluntary gas-tax, paid by the gallon, can be a helpful part of this personal practice. We are motivated to use our cars less often, and we can direct the money we collect towards activities which fight climate change.

Traditionally, carbon offsets have been a popular way for businesses to account for their carbon consumption. The voluntary gas tax, though, is part of a slightly different model, called a carbon onset. Carbon onsets are based on a higher estimate for the cost of carbon than traditional offsets. They also allow us to direct funds right into the hands of organizations we trust to use the money well.

The Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions recommends a volunteer gasoline tax at the rate of fifty cents per gallon. With current prices, you would still be paying significantly less for fuel than you often have in the last decade.

Taking moral action at the cost of economic benefit

Whether it’s the president meeting with donors or a Study Service Term traveling all the way to Indonesia, I think it’s time for the Goshen College community to pay the full social and environmental cost of the carbon it expends in pursuit of its mission.

In terms of flights, the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions recommends a tax of two cents per air mile. For example, a round trip flight from Chicago to Quito, Ecuador, requires setting aside one hundred and eighteen dollars for a carbon onset.

An invitation

I invite you to join me in a yearlong commitment to a voluntary carbon tax that not only recognizes the impact of our consumption but also does something to begin reversing it. The money we set aside can be directed to organizations we trust, like the Cofán Survival Fund, or a local organization like Trees for Goshen. You can get started by visiting and clicking onset now.

Could we who have heard and continue to tell the story of the Anabaptist movement reject comfort, safety, and economic benefit in the name of forging a new path forward? Could we call ourselves to a higher standard as leaders in the climate movement?

Engagement with the Anabaptist story begs these questions, and engagement with the needs of our hurting world answers with a resounding yes.