Green Guilt, Really? A Response to Slate’s Daniel Gross and the Concept of Green Privilege

June 26, 2015 | 11:32 am
Josh Goldman
Former Contributor

Slate contributor Daniel Gross suffers from a bad case of green guilt. Not to be confused with Catholic or Jewish guilt, green guilt arises from green privilege, which Gross defines as having access to public benefits that “flow almost exclusively to individuals who are already well off and don’t need the help.”

The most glaring example of green privilege, Gross argues, is the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles (EVs). Not only are federal and state tax credits for EVs helping yuppies save money on fuel and reduce their emissions, but Gross’s town of Westport, Connecticut is allowing EV drivers to get preferential parking at train stations too. Oh the horror! Someone get this guy a gas guzzler and a crappy parking spot, stat!

Are green vehicles only for those who can afford Tesla's and Fisker's?

Are vehicles incentives only for those who can afford Tesla’s and Fisker’s? Source via Wikicommons

But let’s get real. If you can afford a $70,000 Tesla, you probably don’t need too much financial help. But the federal EV tax credit and the additional state incentives for EVs aren’t just helping the rich. They are helping drivers from a range of income brackets access advanced vehicles that cost less to fuel, lower transportation-related global warming emissions, and are a key solution for cutting our oil use in half in twenty years.

Putting Tesla aside for a moment, it is important to note that automakers are offering EVs priced more toward car buyers who don’t have huge vaults filled with gold coins. For example, the federal EV tax credit lowers the purchase price of the 2015 Nissan LEAF to $21,150, the 2015 Chevy Volt to $26,670, and the 2015 Kia Soul EV to $26,200. Considering that the 2014 average prices of a new midsize car like the LEAF or Volt and a small SUV like the Soul EV were $24,800 and $26,100, respectively, the post-tax credit prices of these EVs are in-line with what people are spending on vehicles on average anyway. So, I would argue that tax credits for EVs are helping middle-class drivers afford advanced clean vehicle tech – not just yuppies.

I agree with Gross that we need to talk about green privilege. Incentives and programs should be structured to help people from low to moderate economic backgrounds and should not be merely a handout to wealthy car buyers. We’re already seeing this sort of structuring happen in California, the leading state for EV adoption in the U.S. California’s Air Resources Board just approved policies that would provide additional incentives for EVs to lower income families and eliminate state rebates for California’s highest earners. This sort of progressive policy is exactly the kind that will continue to spur EV sales, and can serve as a model for other states and ultimately the federal government to follow.

The Golden State is also required to direct significant portions of the revenue generated from their cap and trade program to disadvantaged communities. This past fiscal year, for example, California spent more than $200 million to benefit these communities, including investing in electric trucks and buses.

As Gross notes, EV incentives and policies are helping create a market for this advanced vehicle technology, thus helping EVs reach economies of scale and lowering the price for everybody. But the many types of EVs for sale today are not just for the rich, and neither are the policies spurring their adoption. I wouldn’t classify owners of a $20,000 vehicle like the Nissan LEAF as rich, necessarily. Yet these drivers take the train and would like preferential parking too, right? It takes a small leap of faith to become an EV driver, but it’s a leap that needs taking; let’s reward it beyond a little help with the purchase price.

So, let’s ditch the green guilt, and work together to help the 42 percent of American drivers who could own an EV today access this critical oil saving technology.