Complicit Down Under: America’s Moral Responsibility for Australia’s Carbon Tax Repeal

On July 16, 2014, Australia lapsed into a relative state of climatic irresponsibility when it repealed the national carbon tax that had been in place since 2012. Although this may seem like an amoral intranational policy decision, traditional categories of Catholic moral theology can help demonstrate that Australia’s carbon tax repeal is actually a morally wrong action in which the U.S. is complicit. In view of this, U.S. Catholics have an even more urgent moral imperative to advocate that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan be guided by Catholic teaching.

A Brief Background

In the face of both climate change and the inability of voluntary efforts to adequately mitigate the crisis, there is widespread advocacy for an economic price to be placed on greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, there is a diverse and growing coalition that supports national carbon taxation.

In 2012, the Labor-led Australian government passed one of the world’s first national taxes on carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions. Although the policy has since been celebrated as both environmentally effective and legislatively exemplary—especially since Australia has one of the highest national CO2 emission levels per capita—the policy has been persistently maligned as economically harmful by Australia’s conservative Liberal Party and high-emitting industries.

America’s Role in Australia’s Repeal

Many of the arguments levied against Australia’s carbon tax by the Liberal Party and greenhouse gas emission-intensive industries were intranational in scope. At the same time, however, one argument used against the carbon tax was distinctively international: carbon tax opponents argued that the policy placed Australian companies at a competitive disadvantage against those in developed nations that lack similar carbon emission regulations.

Given that the U.S. has the world’s largest national GDP, along with the reality that the U.S. has repeatedly failed to establish a national carbon price, it is not a stretch to say that the U.S. is complicit in the immoral repeal of Australia’s carbon tax. In order to understand more clearly how and why this is so, Catholics can utilize key concepts from the tradition of Catholic moral theology.

Morality of an Action

Traditional Catholic moral theology maintains that all moral actions, i.e., actions freely chosen, are made up of three components: the objective act as judged by conscience, the intention for acting, and circumstances that include the action’s consequences. In order for an act to be morally good, each aspect must in and of itself be good. Guided by these terms, moral theologians sometimes engage in a process called casuistry whereby the morality of an act is determined by identifying and judging the object, intention, and circumstance of an agent or action.

Although both the aforementioned moral terms and process of casuistry are traditionally applied to individuals’ actions, they can nevertheless be helpful in analogous moral reasoning (i.e., “analogical imagination,” as David Tracy might say) about nations’ actions. In particular, these moral resources can help shed light on how and why the U.S. is partially responsible and culpable for Australia’s immoral carbon tax repeal.

First, it might be argued that Australia’s carbon tax repeal had a good object; that is to say, Australians’ consciences judged the repeal to be objectively good for the country. Similarly, it might be said that Australia’s repeal was guided by a good intention—specifically, the desire to support a legislative repeal intended to promote human flourishing.

At this point, however, it becomes clear that the circumstances of the repeal—specifically the foreseeable consequences of likely climate change proliferation and subsequent human suffering—cannot be judged good. Since object, intention, and circumstance must each be good in order for an act to be good, Australia’s carbon tax repeal can be judged as not morally good, i.e., as morally wrong.

Cooperation with Evil

Given the moral wrongness of Australia’s carbon tax repeal, two additional terms from Catholic moral theology can help reveal America’s complicity in this wrong. Catholic moral theology recognizes two categories of cooperation with evil. As moral theologian James T. Bretzke, S.J., writes in his Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms, “Formal cooperation means sharing in the sinful intent of the principle agent of evil…Material cooperation is the objective aid given or tolerated to the evil caused.” Although these terms generally apply to individuals’ positive actions, they can also help assess the analogous morality of nations’ deliberate non-actions.

In light of this moral framework, America’s failure to establish a carbon price does not constitute formal cooperation—Americans (presumably) did not resist a domestic carbon price in order to encourage Australia’s carbon tax repeal. At the same time, however, the internationally-focused argument for repeal of Australia’s carbon tax, i.e., that competitor countries such as the U.S. do not have a carbon price, shows that America can be said to be materially cooperative with Australia’s carbon tax repeal.

Although Catholic theology asserts that an agent is always wrong to formally cooperate with evil, the tradition also maintains that the degree of an agent’s moral culpability in material cooperation depends on several factors. One such factor, as M. Cathleen Kaveny points out, is gravity, i.e., the seriousness of the moral offense. Given that Australia’s carbon tax repeal is likely to exacerbate climate change and may imperil international climate treaty negotiations, a case can be made that this policy decision is gravely wrong. As such, and in view of how America exercised a sort of material cooperation with this act, the U.S. bears a significant moral responsibility for its complicity in Australia’s morally wrong policy decision (along with other economically advanced countries without domestic climate change mitigation policies).

Opportunity for Repentance: Clean Power Plan Advocacy

Despite America’s collective moral culpability for Australia’s carbon tax repeal, Americans currently have an opportunity to make some amends for past shortcomings. On June 2, 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed its Clean Power Plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. Public comments on the Plan are now being accepted through October 16, 2014, and the Catholic Climate Covenant has published a Clean Power Plan advocacy page where people of faith and goodwill can support the Plan in keeping with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Given both America’s complicity in Australia’s carbon tax repeal and America’s own contributions to global climate change, there is thus an urgent moral imperative for U.S. Catholics to take this important advocacy step.

The author is grateful to M. Cathleen Kaveny, J.D., Ph.D., for her helpful feedback on an earlier version of this essay.