With Republicans Advocating a Carbon Tax, Can Conservatives and Progressives Agree on Climate Action?
Produced by Barbara Lucas
Group call: All right, great job Grand Rapids!
BL: I’m in Ann Arbor, Michigan, attending the local chapter meeting of an international organization called the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
Group call: Detroit Michigan, with eight people! Nice Detroit! Philadelphia, six people. Madison with forty today!
BL: Those are some of the nearly 400 North American chapters of the CCL, checking in to the monthly group call.
Group call: The proposal is on an upstream fee on the carbon content of fossil fuels, starting at $40 per ton, increasing at 2% above inflation per year.
BL: About 35 people are gathered in a circle, listening intently to news of the climate solution announced February 8th. It’s a tax on carbon that’s collected at the source—the coal mine, the oil well, or the port of entry. And the fee is distributed back to citizens in the form of a dividend, making it revenue neutral.
Group call: The authors estimate emission reduction nearly two times what all Obama era regulations would achieve.
BL: Actually, this proposal is very similar to what the CCL’s 20,000 plus volunteers have already been lobbying for, for ten years now.
Group call: …so this is not our policy, and we like our policy better, but it’s still something to be very excited about.
BL: It’s being proposed by the newly formed Climate Leadership Council—a group of Conservative “elders” not currently in office, but powerful nonetheless. The reception the plan’s received is impressive. Scores of major editorial endorsements: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon, the list goes on. Why is the new proposal generating so much excitement? Here are clips from the launch event. Check out how they’re describing their plan, and who’s doing the describing.
James Baker: If we can get an insurance policy that is a conservative approach, based on the free market…
BL: That’s no less than James Baker, former Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary under both Reagan and Bush.
Baker: …that limits government rather than expands it, and that is competitive internationally, that's a win-win and we have to take a look at that.
BL: What? A revered Republican, advocating a carbon tax? Surprisingly, he’s joined by a who’s who of Conservatives: George Schultz—another former Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary—under Nixon and Reagan. Leading economists. The CEO of Walmart. Here’s economist Marty Feldstein.
Marty Feldstein: A carbon tax is just simply the simplest and most economically effective way to reduce the level of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. It’s better than the more cumbersome method of regulation that we now use. It’s also simpler, and much more reliable, than the so-called “cap and trade” method.
BL: Baker points out that President Reagan instituted a similar free market strategy, to fight the looming threat of depletion of the ozone layer.
Baker: As it turned out the scientists who were worried at that time about that depletion, turned out to be right, and Reagan's Montreal Protocol came along just in time. So we argue that we should substitute a carbon tax for the raft of regulations and subsidies that now characterize this issue. For the sake of our children and grandchildren…
BL: While the Citizens’ Climate Lobby strives to be nonpartisan, thus far it’s managed to attract mostly Progressives. The Climate Leadership Council, in contrast, prominently bills itself as Conservative. And considering current politics, that’s key. But will that, in itself, be effective in enticing Republicans to embrace the plan?
Sounds of a community meeting.
BL: Looking for folks who may be right-of-center, my first stop is a community forum in the small town of Dexter, Michigan. The bimonthly discussion was founded, and is co-led, by a Democrat and a Republican.
Forum leaders: Good morning! Welcome everyone!
BL: All political persuasions are encouraged to attend. And all are welcome to suggest topics. I briefly describe the Conservatives’ plan.
BL: Last week, I don’t know if anyone heard about it, there was a proposal…
BL: No one here has heard of it yet. But initial reactions are skeptical.
Various forum attendees: I’m just sort of befuddled by it, that this is a conservative proposal, and the government collects money and distributes it to other people. It’s not consistent with… And calls it market-based! Sounds like a tax to me!
BL: Indeed, the Republican Party platform during the last presidential campaign explicitly opposed a tax on carbon.
Forum Attendee: Anything that comes with the label “carbon tax” is probably not going to get far. It needs to be rebranded. Get rid of that statement, because that has a bad connotation.
BL: James Baker and his crew seem well aware of this major challenge. They label it “Carbon Dividends” instead.
Baker: Carbon Dividends. There’s a carbon tax buried in there somewhere, but this is a program for Carbon Dividends. Make sure you understand that.
BL: They estimate the dividend would start out at about $2,000 per household per year, and go up from there.
Baker: This is not a tax in that sense. It does not grow government. It is rebated dollar for dollar to the American people.
BL: Proponents say those dividend checks will act as a stimulus. The health of economy is a priority for Conservatives. So I send the plan to the University of Michigan College Republicans Club, to see if anyone there has comment.
Enrique Zalamea: I also really like the way that they give the tax revenue back to American families. That's another great way to increase the economy—just in general—and give back to the American people through these large corporations.
BL: Enrique Zalamea is president of U of M’s Republicans Club. His career goal is to work on Wall Street.
Zalamea: And I've seen other countries that have implemented other plans similar to this have actually increased their GDP. As opposed to what you’d expect from a tax rate of this size.
BL: We discuss British Columbia’s carbon tax, where they’ve decreased emissions by 17%, while outperforming the rest of Canada economically. And Zalamea likes the fact that the plan might encourage nuclear. But despite what he likes about it, he voices a concern often expressed by Conservatives.
Zalamea: So the thing is, I'm pretty conflicted actually, because part of me believes that the world in general is just too far past any remedial efforts to lower CO2 emissions. Even if we do lower CO2 emissions, I don't think it's going to have any significant impact on how the rest of the world is producing it. So it just seems to me that it would be putting the U.S. at a disadvantage to reduce our CO2 emissions.
BL: Attempting to address this concern, the creators of the Carbon Dividends plan note it includes border adjustments for the carbon content of exports and imports. They say that will level the playing field, and will encourage other countries to follow suit. Their goal? All countries of the world with their own carbon pricing plan. Sounds like something Progressives could go for too. But will Democrats support a proposal offered by Republicans?
BL: I’m in the “Diag” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at a climate rally. It’s February 18th and 66 degrees. From the signs they’re carrying, and their chants, I’m guessing this is a fairly left-of-center crowd.
Chants and cheers.
Dingell: We can’t just gather in the Diag.
BL: One of the six speakers is U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell.
Dingell: We have to make sure that we have action plans, and that we are delivering on those action plans!
BL: Speaking of action plans, I sent details of the Carbon Dividends plan to the rally speakers the week before. But as far as I can hear—which isn’t easy, in the din—none of them mention the plan in their speeches. So I ask around in the crowd.
BL: The show is about the announcement last week of the Conservative proposal for a climate solution. Did you hear about that?
Claire Maitre: What is that?
BL: I explain Carbon Dividends briefly to Claire Maitre, an avid environmental activist. Her first reaction is very skeptical.
Maitre: …a brilliant scheme to incentivize the public to buy into their corporate agenda.
BL: But when I mention that the Conservative elders’ plan is similar to that of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby—a group she’s familiar with—Maitre wants to know more. CCL has co-sponsored the rally, and has an info table here. We head over.
Maitre: What’s the difference between what the Citizens’ Climate Lobby is doing and …
BL: Here’s Ann Arbor CCL Chapter Chair Ginny Rogers.
Rogers: Their plan is quite similar to ours. The differences in the Climate Leadership Council’s Carbon Dividends plan is that theirs also calls for eliminating some regulations, I think specifically the Clean Power Plan.
BL: Rogers says the CCL plan also covers other greenhouse gases such as methane, whereas the Conservatives’ plan focuses solely on carbon dioxide.
Maitre: What would then motivate citizens to continue to push against the use of fossil fuels?
Rogers: I think just the fact that they will be more expensive, is the main reason that people will be incentivized to use cleaner energy. Because they won’t want to put their money into fossil fuels that are getting more and more expensive.
BL: Indeed, the Climate Leadership Council’s plan starts out at a much higher price per ton of CO2 emitted than does CCL’s. It’s set high to make the Clean Power Plan unnecessary right out of the barn. They say that’s crucial: for Republican buy-in, and, because it will get results. Here’s Council founder Ted Halstead.
Halstead: Our plan would achieve twice as much emissions reductions as all Obama-era regulations combined. Which is why we believe, that with our plan, the vast majority of those regulations could be safely eliminated.
Sounds of coffee shop.
BL: But any rollback of the Clean Power Plan makes it a non-starter with some groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, which issued a statement in opposition to the plan. Are there left-leaning leaders who will consider fewer regulations? I contact the speakers at the climate rally. Two of them agree to weigh in. I meet with Chip Smith, Ann Arbor City Council member. He says he’s definitely nervous about potential rollbacks.
Smith: But if it is, you know, “We think there’s a better way of accomplishing the same thing as the Clean Power Act,” well, then we would be doing a disservice to the country if we were to not have that discussion.
BL: And here’s State Representative Yousef Rabhi.
Rabhi: I’m a little bit concerned with the rhetoric around the environment that accompanies a proposal like this.
BL: Although he says the plan is a step in the right direction, Rabhi fears anti-regulation fervor could be a slippery slope.
BL: Back at the rally, I speak with a professor who studies plans such as these. Elizabeth Anderson is chair of the U of M Philosophy Department, with a specialty in political economy.
Anderson: I have no problem at all with rolling back unnecessary or obsolete regulations. But there have to be certain regulations to enable us to get to the goal of a zero carbon economy. Pricing it will all by itself not manage that.
BL: She gives the example of mandated appliance efficiency standards.
Anderson: The builder’s incentive is just to put in the cheapest air conditioner, which might be very energy inefficient. And same with the other appliances that might come packaged with the house or the apartment. And so you need to upgrade your building code.
BL: Apparently, the Climate Leadership Council agrees some regulations are necessary.
Halstead: The easiest example is appliance standards.
BL: That’s Ted Halstead.
Halstead: The party that typically buys the appliances, let’s say a landlord, is not the party typically that uses that appliance which means that the cost signal is not transferred through.
BL: OK, so some regulations would stay. But what about impacts to the vulnerable? That’s another factor that could determine support of Progressives. State Representative Yousef Rabhi says he’s uncomfortable with the idea of giving an equal dividend to all Americans.
Rabhi: My concern with that is that not everybody is bearing an equal impact of climate change, and not everyone is bearing an equal impact of environmental pollution in general.
BL: He says more of a refund should go to communities that live near a coal-fired power plant, for instance, because they have higher health care costs.
Rabhi: Making sure that we are doing this equitably, is very important. Again, not equally, but equitably.
BL: A related concern is expressed by Ed Francis, back at the Dexter Forum. He wonders if equal dividends would be fair. He says some people have to travel far for work or groceries.
Francis: My concern is that, would that carbon tax somehow penalize those people? It’s like, “Yeah, they get something back.” But would it be enough to balance out their need?
BL: Francis is not alone. Similar concerns were voiced by the left in the bitter battle over the carbon tax proposal which was defeated in Washington State, last November. Here’s Ted Halstead, addressing these fears.
Halstead: According to the Department of Treasury, 70% of Americans would come out ahead with this plan. In fact the bottom 70% of Americans would come out ahead under this plan. What that means it is 223 million Americans stand to benefit financially from solving climate change.
BL: He says the less you pollute, the more you stand to benefit. The fact that poor people would benefit most may have appeal to faith groups. What about their support? Combined, they could be a powerful force.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Climate change is disproportionately affecting the poor and marginalized, the people we are called to have a special concern for.
BL: I’m meeting over coffee with recent seminary graduate Kyle Meyaard-Schaap. He’s director of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. He says when they speak to college students, they tell them they need not feel conflicted.
Meyaard-Schaap: A lot of you perhaps have been told that you need to make a choice between your faith and the concern for climate. But you don't have to. That's a false choice. In fact your faith can lead you into deep concern and action on climate and that's not unfaithful, it's deeply faithful.
BL: And he doesn’t see this as a uniquely Christian obligation.
Meyaard-Schaap: From what I know of other major world religions, that is a principle across the board. Love God, love other people. And I think that all people of goodwill of any faith, or of no particular faith, can understand that that's part of living a good life… And recognizing the ways in which your own actions and your own lifestyle are affecting people around you, and being concerned about that.
BL: He says when fossil fuels are cheap, the negative impacts of a product aren’t paid by the purchaser. Instead, they’re paid by the rest of society. And this, in essence, goes against principles of his faith. He says a carbon tax corrects for what economists call an “externality.”
Meyaard-Schaap: And carbon pollution is a big one. It’s a market failure.
BL: Meyaard-Schaap finds the Conservatives’ plan a very hopeful sign.
Meyaard-Schaap: We are excited to see what we believe to be the arbitrary partisan battle lines that have been drawn around climate change begin to dissolve.
BL: He says the framing—the market-based approach—is key. He says regulatory solutions automatically alienate Conservatives.
Meyaard-Schaap: And so I think a lot of Conservatives are having a hard time breaking into the conversation. And when they don't feel welcome at the table, when they don't see their identities being affirmed in the language that's being used, when they don’t see solutions being put forward that they resonate with, who wouldn't check out of the process! Who wouldn't say: “I don't want to be part of this.”
BL: As he’s talking, I think back to the climate rally on the “diag.” Sounds of drumming and chanting at rally. I wonder, would climate-concerned Conservatives feel comfortable there? Meyaard-Schaap says the skills necessary for bipartisan collaboration are valued by his faith: Reconciliation, acceptance, humility.
Meyaard-Schaap: Recognizing that we don't have the solution, all of us together have a solution. And unless all of us are talking together we're not going to find it. And so having the humility to say, “I need your help! (person I disagree with)…” I think that’s a gift, to not only the issue of climate change, but to every issue, and to all of life.
BL: The acceptance of different perspectives recalls James Baker’s words at the launch.
Baker: I was and remain a skeptic about the extent to which man is responsible. But I do think that the risks that are associated, if the people that do believe are right, are too great to ignore.
BL: Baker’s call for an “insurance policy” is a concept many skeptics can embrace. This topic of framing leads me to University of Michigan professor Andrew Hoffman. He literally wrote the book on it, called: “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.” He says at its heart, the debate isn’t about science at all. It’s about deeply entrenched world views and tribe affiliations.
Hoffman: Somehow we have to break the link between a conservative ideology, a conservative worldview, and climate denial. There are, I assure you, there are lots of Republican politicians and staffers in Washington who know this is real. But they can’t come out without losing their position in Washington.
BL: In fact, Rex Tillerson, our current Secretary of State, gave a speech in October supporting a carbon tax, when he was chief executive of ExxonMobil. Many energy companies like the idea of a steadily rising carbon tax. With market predictability, risks are minimized. Investment in renewables can become a safe bet. And this could spell job growth.
Hoffman: There are sectors—vibrant, important economic sectors—that are supportive of the economic shift that climate change presents. The number of jobs in renewables now rivals that in the fossil fuel industry.
BL: But certainly not all businesses are in support: the powerful American Energy Alliance is staunchly against anything that resembles a carbon tax. While acknowledging the steep odds, Hoffman notes change is brewing. He tells me about the Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus.
Hoffman: There is some “green” caucus—a bipartisan caucus on climate change.
BL: It was formed only last year, and is already up to 38 members. Half are Democrats and half Republicans.
Hoffman: In many ways I wonder whether, just as only Nixon could go to China, maybe only a Republican administration can get this through Congress.
BL: He says we don’t know where Trump stands on the issue, and wherever it is, that could change.
Hoffman: Just like Nixon, who opened up China, even though he was the most stalwart in opposition to it. I know it’s a total long shot, but he loves to stir things up and this would certainly stir things up.
BL: The Climate Leadership Council did present their Carbon Dividends plan to the Trump Administration on February 8th. The response was distinctly non-committal. But Hoffman feels that given the right circumstances, and the right framing, a breakthrough on climate could be possible.
Hoffman: Can it shift? Yes! Can it shift quickly? YES.
BL: OK, let’s just say the Republicans do move forward with a carbon dividends plan. Could Democrats set aside their distrust, and lend their support? Amongst the folks I spoke with, willingness was evidenced, to varying degrees. Here’s State Representative Yousef Rabhi.
Rabhi: No plan is perfect, of course, and something is better than nothing. And if this plan has a chance of moving forward, then wonderful.
BL: Here’s Ann Arbor City Council member Chip Smith:
Smith: Getting to the discussion of the national carbon tax is really, really important. And I think the only way we get there is if it comes from Republicans, quite frankly.
BL: Back at the rally, here’s Citizens’ Climate Lobby member David Gurk.
Gurk: Some of the details I don’t agree with, but that’s OK. It’s really a matter of the ‘who’ being more important than the ‘what,’ ...because rather than debating whether climate change is real, and if we should do something, then we’ll be debating about exactly what we should do. And that would be a gigantic step forward.
BL: And here’s Professor Elizabeth Anderson.
Anderson: That refund that’s coming in, no matter what, I think people will find that an extremely attractive proposal. So it will be very hard to get the political momentum, and enough votes, but once it’s passed, I think it will be very, very popular.
BL: You sound like you think this will happen some day.
Anderson: I think something like this has to happen. Yes. The question is when?
BL: While there is opposition to this plan, there is also support, from some surprising places. A conversation, at least, may finally be starting that includes a broad spectrum of perspectives.
Produced by Barbara Lucas