Conservative Leadership on Climate Is Not Only Possible, but Viable
It’s a muggy August evening in DC. My friend Hannah and I sit on the patio of a favorite neighborhood ice cream shop, Carmen’s Italian Ice, enjoying our melting gelatis, and making small talk about the offensive heat and daily bouts of thunderstorms. But anything is more interesting than the weather, she jokes.
“Very true,” I agree, “like bipartisan federal level climate action?”
It sounds like an ironic, if not sarcastic, comment. But, full disclaimer: I do indeed find sensible climate policy much more interesting than I do weather, and so do many college students across the country.
“Federal level climate action? In this political climate?” I chuckle as I choose to believe the pun was intended, but Hannah just gives me a skeptical look and a raised eyebrow: I take that as a signal to explain.
Bipartisanship is a dirty word in Washington: in a political system that values the principled and berates the flip-floppers, working together and compromising can easily be misconstrued for weakness and lack of conviction. The irony is that our political system was created to incentivize compromise.
It looks good to talk of working across the aisle, but when pushed, some politicians would rather prompt government shutdowns than concede. So why try to implement bipartisan environmental policy? The straightforward answer is that the state of our unstable climate is not an issue intrinsically political in nature, and it’s an issue too important to be neglected at the hands of our hyper-partisan politics.
Environmentalism is an issue championed by the left, but while the narrative is controlled by Democrats, it was not always this way. The GOP was once the party of environmental stewardship, after all, conservation is an inherently conservative ideal. President Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for placing approximately 230,000,000 acres of land under public protection and creating five National Parks. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. President George H.W. Bush signed anti-pollution policy to reduce acid rain. Yet the party responsible for so many important victories for the environment has lost its seat at the table for discussions on environmental policy.
Many Democrats are strong supporters of environmental efforts, but their methods generally veer towards increased regulations and expanded government, both of which closely represent the antithesis of conservatism for Republicans today. Recently, a coalition of conservatives concerned by the partisan nature of climate instability known as the “eco-right” has started to challenge this notion of “big government” being the humanity’s lone savior. Among them is the Climate Leadership Council, who released The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends in 2017, which calls for a revenue-neutral tax on carbon dioxide emissions, in which all the money collected will be returned to the American people through a “dividend.”
The plan, named for Republican luminaries and former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz, calls for a gradually increasing carbon tax to be implemented at the first point where fossil fuels enter our economy. All of the revenue generated from this tax would be returned to the people: if the carbon tax starts at $40 per ton, a family of four would receive nearly $2,000 in carbon dividend payments in the first year, according to the Council’s economic models. Over time as the carbon tax rate gradually increases, the people would receive a greater dividend each year, creating a positive feedback loop: the more our climate improves, the more our citizens benefit economically.
But that’s not all: in order to protect the competitiveness of the American economy, the plan includes the implementation of border adjustments on both imports and exports with a carbon content. This would prevent other countries from “free-riding” off of America’s policy while creating even more revenue. As the Council explains, “exports to countries without comparable carbon pricing systems would receive rebates for carbon taxes paid, while imports from such countries would face fees on the carbon content of their products.” This aspect of the plan would encourage other countries to adopt carbon pricing policies of their own.
The final pillar is what separates this plan from other carbon pricing ideas: a rollback of regulations that would become redundant and unnecessary given a gradually rising carbon tax. The Council notes that in order to ensure bipartisan support for regulatory simplifications of this scale, it is crucial that “the initial carbon tax rate should be set to significantly exceed the emissions reductions of all Obama-era climate regulations, and the carbon tax should increase from year to year.”
Unlike other federal taxes where money disappears from the pockets of Americans to fund poorly organized government projects, 70% of Americans will be net winners under this policy, gaining a much needed disposable income in a time where fewer than 39% of Americans have savings to cover a $1,000 emergency. With more money to spend, America will see economic growth and the galvanization of the country’s greatest asset: the power of American innovation.
A policy such as the Baker-Shultz plan would be quite popular, according to a recent study from the Yale Program on Climate Change: 68% of Americans—including majorities in every state and congressional district—support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax. And once people start seeing the revenue, there will certainly be a large constituency who wouldn’t dare let their representatives touch their dividend checks.
The Republicans control the government, and before the midterm elections roll around in November, the GOP has an imperative to show the country that they are capable of legislating and leading—that they can do more than repeal Democrat policies. Now we have a Republican-led and written solution to climate change that appeals to folks on the left as well.
Our climate is changing, and while the amount of change from anthropogenic factors is still contested, many Republicans are tired of choosing between party and planet.
But what about climate skeptics, many of whom are the Republicans standing in the way of GOP-led environmental policy? I urge those skeptical of the claims made by the scientific community to look at this as an economic issue. As Wall Street Veteran Bob Litterman asserted in a 2017 op-ed, “choosing not to price climate risk appropriately is insane.” When managing risk, we must think of the worst-case scenarios, and price the risk appropriately. If the climate is changing in a way detrimental to human flourishing, we need a plan in place to effectively counteract the damage of carbon emissions.
Time is our most valuable resource, and if the worst-case scenario projections from climate scientists are true, we need to take action as quickly as possible.
Republicans and conservatives: there is now a plan that protects our climate without expanding the size of government or sacrificing free-market principles. You have the plan, you control the White House, Senate, and House, and you have public support. This is a common-sense policy, not just for the environment, but for economic growth and American prosperity.
If you are a student who wants to get involved in propelling this policy to Congress, you can endorse the Baker-Shultz plan here either as an individual or as a student group.