Republican statesmen think they have found the answer to the country’s climate problem

A new plan called for a tax on carbon. But will anyone listen?

An unreclaimed strip mine in Virginia, just across the state line from Kentucky’s Harlan County. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
An unreclaimed strip mine in Virginia, just across the state line from Kentucky’s Harlan County. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

A group of senior Republican statesmen unveiled a new plan to fight climate change on Wednesday, just before a meeting at the White House with presidential advisers.

The newly formed Climate Leadership Council — which includes former Secretaries of the Treasury, Secretaries of State, ambassadors, and economists — has developed a carbon tax and dividend plan that would put a starting price of $40 per ton tax on carbon. Revenue from that tax would then be redistributed to U.S. taxpayers.

Ted Halstead, founder of public policy center New America and president of the council, called the plan a “Republican climate jailbreak strategy,” referencing the party’s opposition to any climate solutions that have been proposed in the past.

“Behind the scenes, there is a lot of interest among Republicans in finding an elegant, proactive solution” to the climate crisis, Halstead said. “The climate problem is not going away. This is by far the best solution, and we think that with our consensus efforts, this will become the inevitable climate solution.”

According to Halstead, the Treasury Department estimates that 70 percent of Americans would stand to benefit from the revenue-neutral tax plan.

And, he said, Congressional Republicans and the president should be on board.

“If you look at the priorities of President Trump, our plan ticks every one of his boxes. It is pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-competitiveness, it will balance trade… and it will be good for working class Americans,” he said.

“It will be good for working class Americans.”

But while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil, has expressed tentative support for a carbon tax in the past, much of Trump’s cabinet — and Trump himself — don’t think that climate change is an urgent issue to be addressed.

Even former Secretary of State James Baker, who served under President George H.W. Bush, tried to straddle the line between urging climate action while repeating the GOP’s climate denial talking points. Baker said Wednesday that he isn’t convinced that human activity is warming the planet, but that the risks were too high for inaction.

“I was and remain somewhat of a [climate] skeptic,” Baker said. But “the risks are too great to ignore, and we need some sort of insurance policy.”

He drew a parallel between the current climate crisis with the 1980s ozone layer depletion, saying, “as it turned out, the scientists who were worried about that depletion turned out to be right,” and the Montreal Protocol, formulated with leadership from former President Ronald Reagan, was the right course of action.

It’s hard to judge how much weight these former high-level officials will carry. The speakers Wednesday seemed intent on finding a way to get Republicans to lead on this issue.

“It allows our party to lead from the high ground.”

“I think this plan does put America first,” Baker said. “It allows our party to lead from the high ground.”

But Republicans in Congress, particularly in the House, have largely derided climate change as, at best, an unproven theory, and, at worst, a myth made up by environmentalists to ruin the economy. They have also been strongly supportive of protecting fossil fuel industries such as oil, gas, and coal. It’s hard to imagine Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly accused Democrats of waging a “war on coal,” approving a $40 tax on carbon dioxide.

In the 2013–2014 legislative sessions, there were six carbon tax, fee, or dividend bills introduced, all by Democrats. None of them were taken up.

In theory, at least, a carbon tax is bipartisan.

“There is a complete consensus among economists that putting a price on carbon is the right thing to do,” said former White House economic adviser Gregory Mankiw, another member of the group.

A price on carbon is seen as the most effective way to diminish greenhouse gases. Taxing carbon at the point of entry into the economy — when coal is first sold, for instance — would immediately put a cost on emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Utilities would be more incentivized to purchase clean power — like wind and solar, which are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels — and consumers would pay more for carbon-intensive goods and services.

A carbon tax also provides a fair degree of certainty for businesses — and businesses love certainty. In short, there is something in a carbon tax for nearly every group: environmentalists, free market advocates, the business community, and the nearly two-thirds of Americans who are worried about climate change.

The group on Wednesday seemed incredulous that their Republican colleagues would not be interested.

“It makes so much sense,” Baker said. “I think there a lot of people out there in my party who are responsible and reasonable, and we hope that they will recognize the wisdom of [the plan].”