The Clinton team studied and rejected the wrong carbon tax

No, the right carbon tax would not be politically “lethal,” despite what hacked campaign emails say.

Australian carbon tax supporters gather at a 2011 rally in Sydney. CREDIT: AP/Rick Rycroft
Australian carbon tax supporters gather at a 2011 rally in Sydney. CREDIT: AP/Rick Rycroft

The Clinton team apparently considered and rejected a carbon tax over the the course of the presidential campaign. Hacked emails released by WikiLeaks reveal the campaign had concluded it was a political loser.

But I think their analysis was wrong. I’m setting aside here the fact that the campaign has never confirmed the validity of these emails and that the U.S. intelligence community believes the Russian government was behind the hack.

I think the campaign may have polled the wrong question and, even more significantly, analyzed a carbon tax that was unnecessarily high. While getting any carbon tax through the next Congress would be a massive challenge, sooner or later we are going to put a price on carbon, which means a better understanding of the key issues involved is needed.

So why didn’t team Clinton want to endorse a carbon tax? Campaign manager Robby Mook wrote in a June 2015 email, “it’s lethal in the general [election], so I don’t want to support one.” Another email, from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta* says, “we have done extensive polling on carbon tax. It all sucks.”

What made me want to dive into this issue a bit more is that all the polling and public opinion research in recent years makes clear that climate change is a winning issue in the general election.

Researchers reported in April that the number of Americans who are “more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who strongly supports taking action to reduce global warming” exceeds the number who would be less likely to vote for such a candidate by a factor of 3 to 1 (43 percent to 14 percent). Similarly, the number of Americans who are “less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who strongly opposes taking action to reduce global warming,” exceeds the number who would be more likely to vote for such a candidate by a factor of 4 to 1 (45 percent to 11 percent).

On top of that, poll after poll has shown for years that a majority of the public supports putting a price on carbon pollution. As you might expect, the support does depend on how high the price on carbon pollution is, a point I will return to.

So what exactly was this “lethal” polling the Clinton campaign had done? And how high a carbon price did they test?

The key piece of campaign polling in the leaks is by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research (see here). It found that 58 percent of people supported a carbon tax when they first heard about it. Then, after being presented brief pro and con arguments, support dropped to 46 percent.

CREDIT: Wikileaks
CREDIT: Wikileaks

Three things jump jumped out at me when I saw this:

  1. Those numbers aren’t “lethal” in a general election. Since when is it lethal to run on an issue that initially has overwhelming support, and only drops to “dead even” after a massive opposition campaign? This describes a great many issues progressives (and others) routinely run on.
  2. How many people support a carbon tax isn’t the most relevant question to poll. The right question is closer to “how many people would support a politician who wants to take aggressive action on climate change (including making polluters pay for carbon pollution) versus a politician who refuses to take any action on climate change (because they think it is a hoax)?” After all, this is the choice the voters have in the general election.
  3. This is sizable carbon tax. The $1,500 per family rebate puts it in the vicinity of $200 billion a year. This is quite big as taxes go (see FactCheck.org).

In fact, as E&E News reported Friday, this tax starts in 2017 at $42 a ton of carbon dioxide (which is $154 a ton of carbon), rising 2 percent a year after that. In the case of gasoline, this is a 40 cent a gallon tax, which is nearly 10 times the gas tax that just squeaked through Congress in 1993 (details here) and was the only remnant of the brutal fight over the B.T.U. tax that convinced many politicians years later a carbon tax would never fly. But I digress.

Analysis for the campaign put average annual revenues from this tax at nearly $220 billion a year. By comparison, the largest one-year cost of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was priced at about $77 billion.

I am very sympathetic to the $42 a ton price, since we will need that price at some point to avoid catastrophic climate change. But going from no U.S. carbon tax straight to $42 a ton turns something that is politically difficult into something that is pretty implausible.

Also, the price of CO2 we most crucially need now is whatever allows us to first hit our 2025 Paris CO2-reduction commitment and then make a stronger pledge for 2030. That doesn’t require starting at $42 in 2017. Given how rapidly clean energy technologies are dropping in price, I suspect that $14 in 2017 would be an okay starting point.

In any case, the price and the details of the tax will be set by whatever it takes to get it through Congress, which certainly is not close to $42 a ton in 2017. So running on $42 right now doesn’t make much sense. Yes, a future Congress will ultimately have to raise the price, but that Congress in the 2020s will be operating at a time when the painful reality of climate change makes us more desperate and when clean energy technologies have become the clear winner in the marketplace.

The bigger problem may be that a carbon tax that could get through Congress is probably not one that progressives are going to like.

*Disclosure: Podesta founded and is currently on the board of the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within the Center for American Progress Action Fund, CAP’s sister organization.