Can Republicans Find Their Voice on Climate Change via a Carbon Tax?

, lead economist and climate policy manager | February 10, 2017, 12:21 pm EST
Bookmark and Share

Earlier this week a group of conservative opinion leaders and experts launched the Climate Leadership Council, championing a national carbon tax to cut emissions and help achieve climate goals.

As with any carbon pricing proposal, the politics are complicated and there is no telling how much traction this particular initiative will get. There are also definite concerns about some of the details of the proposal. But it’s very encouraging to see a meaningful solution to climate change put forth by conservatives. I look forward to seeing where this will go, especially with Republican lawmakers and the Trump administration.

Starting from the facts

This proposal begins with recognizing the scientific facts about climate change and the urgency of acting on solutions. To see leading conservatives articulate those basic realities is important, and I hope Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration are listening.

Climate change should not be a partisan issue. There’s no time to waste on the dangerous new types of denial or delay tactics that were in evidence during the nomination hearings for Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt, for example.

Just like the near-universal consensus among climate scientists about the facts of climate change, there is an overwhelming consensus among economists that a carbon price is an essential policy tool for driving down carbon emissions. The CLC proposal’s starting price of $40/ton CO2, escalating over time, shows the seriousness of their proposal.

What’s more, the authors of the proposal recognize that we have to act on climate as a global community and the US must live up to its international commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. Yes, to meet long term climate goals countries will have to do a lot more than they have currently committed to, but walking away from the Paris Agreement would be a serious mistake.

Notes of caution

There is obviously room for discussion about ways to improve the policy proposal, as and when it gets serious consideration from policymakers. Some aspects of the proposal that could definitely use further scrutiny include:

  • Regulatory rollbacks that harm public health or undermine key legal protections are cause for concern. The EPA’s authority to regulate global warming emissions is a critical safeguard that cannot be negotiated away. There may be middle ground possible here but further conversations with a wide set of stakeholders, including environmental justice groups, are critical.
  • A carbon price alone will not be sufficient to deliver on the deep emission reductions consistent with climate goals; we need complementary policies to address other market failures. For example, policy incentives for innovation in low carbon technologies are important. In sectors like transportation, a small surcharge on fuel prices won’t be enough to drive the big changes needed in vehicle fleets and the investments in infrastructure for public transit or electric vehicles so other policies are needed. And we need policies to address non-CO2 emissions, such as methane.
  • What happens with the (considerable) carbon revenues is obviously a hugely important policy choice that must be made in consultation with lawmakers, with the interests of the broader public squarely in mind. Priorities—such as appropriately offsetting the disproportionate impacts of energy price increases associated with a carbon tax; transition assistance for coal workers and coal-dependent communities; assistance for communities facing climate impacts, especially frontline low income and minority communities; and investments in low-carbon infrastructure—require dedicated funding which could come from carbon revenues, or would require appropriations from Congress.

Getting (back) to bipartisan approaches on climate policy

In recent years, views on climate change have become politicized to the point that climate denial has become a form of tribal identity for most conservative-leaning politicians, and one more instance of the ‘just say no’ approach to any issue championed by the Obama administration.

Given the anti-science rhetoric from many Republicans in Congress, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when climate change was not a partisan issue. There was a time when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and other leading Republicans not only openly accepted climate science but worked hard, together with Democrats, to find bipartisan solutions.

We got tantalizingly close to a national climate policy in the form of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (aka the Waxman-Markey bill), which passed the House but was never brought to a Senate vote because of insufficient support. The failure of that legislative effort is what led to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan as an alternative. Regulation was not the first choice of the Democrats or of the Obama administration.

There is lots of blame to go around about how and why bipartisan approaches to addressing climate change have failed thus far. But we don’t have the luxury to wallow in past mistakes; we have to break through the partisan divide and act on climate now.

And that’s why I am particularly encouraged by a proposal from conservatives that attempts to bridge that divide, albeit imperfectly.

The future can be different

Call me a delusional optimist, but I fervently hope that Republicans in Congress will now feel free to acknowledge the reality of climate change because that position will no longer be associated with a Democratic administration. And that they will work to advance solutions that can help meet the urgency of the challenge we face.

Even during the Obama years, there were some who stepped out of the party line, including a group of Republicans who joined the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House and those who signed on to the Gibson Resolution.

Yesterday, along with the news of the CLC carbon tax proposal, we also heard news of four new members added to the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. The Caucus now has 12 Republican members and 12 Democratic members.

Maybe these types of bipartisan efforts will grow in strength and size and we will get to a political tipping point on climate action. Maybe climate science and smart solutions can take center stage instead of partisan politics. One can hope this happens soon…

Actually, no. Hope is simply not enough. We need action urgently.

Republicans (and Democrats) must step up

We cannot afford another four years of denial, obstruction, artful lies, and ‘just say no’ politics, aided by fossil fuel interests. Climate impacts are already imposing harms on Americans and a costly burden on our economy. The recent climate data are stunning and sobering. Just a few examples:

Meanwhile, solutions like ramping up wind and solar energy are getting cheaper every year, and bring the promise of huge new economic opportunities IF we accelerate the momentum already underway.

Let’s build that clean energy infrastructure and create jobs. Let’s cut pollution from fossil fuels that causes numerous health problems including exacerbating asthma in children, and contributing to other types of heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. Let’s help coastal communities struggling with flooding worsened by sea level rise.

And let’s put a price on carbon while we’re going about it. There’s nothing partisan about any part of this bright vision for our future.

Still waiting for Republican leadership on climate change

Of course, President Trump must also show leadership from the top. His administration’s threats to dismantle existing climate and energy policies without any clear alternative plan are not a promising start. Thus far, the administration doesn’t show any indication of an interest in helping Americans facing the impacts of climate change, or recognizing the serious consequences of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

If the president won’t lead, then Congress—including members of his own party—needs to have the courage to hold him accountable and advance their own climate solutions, perhaps along the lines of the CLC proposal.

The future will not be kind to this Congress and this administration if all they do is continue to find new creative ways to deny the science and dodge their responsibility to act on climate. We the people—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike—deserve much better from our government.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming Tags: ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments


Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Krystof Huang

    * My thesis for which I would very much like feedback from someone like Rachel Cleetus: “Do Stock Markets Make Sustainability Impossible?”
    * If my thesis is correct–it is no surprise that the nation with the leading stock market is also the one leading nation with a major party that denies climate change.
    * Incidentally, this website is totally discouraging for someone with ideas to suggest. The “contact” subjects are all about membership inquiries, nowhere to submit articles or ideas. No “forum” for average people. “Comment” topics are limited to the latest blogs–others are “closed.”
    * Here are the subheadings of my article. If by chance anyone is interested, please see the full article at Vermocracy dotorg.

    1. Unless stocks are deemphasized and bonds emphasized, it is ludicrous to assume that solar energy—or anything else—can create sustainability.
    2. Protesting stock markets is as important as protesting air pollution—but nobody is doing so.
    3. The New York Stock Exchange is not an original or necessary institution for capitalism, democracy, Christianity, America or free enterprise.
    4. There is no magical law that requires stock markets to have happy endings.
    5. Overpopulation is not mandated by religion so much as by stock markets.
    6. No movement is making the essential moves against Wall Street to make sustainability possible.

  • solodoctor

    If Congressional Republicans hear from a significant number of their constituents that the latter want them to move forward on something like the CLC proposal, they might take action. Otherwise, the reps will occupy themselves with undoing ACA and other Obama related programs along with fostering more fossil fuel development via hydraulic fracturing, pipeline construction, etc.

    I hope UCS will foster efforts to push Congressional Republicans to take action on this carbon tax proposal as well as other policies aimed at dealing with climate change.