With President Trump and Republicans in Congress moving swiftly to repeal regulations that slow global warming, a group of prominent conservatives on Wednesday touted a different potential solution - a carbon tax that pays cash dividends to Americans.
In a paper titled "The Conservative Case For Carbon Dividends," op-eds in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, former advisers to presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush argued for phasing out most of the EPA's power to regulate carbon dioxide pollution and replacing it with a carbon tax.
"Increasingly, climate change is becoming a defining issue for this next generation of Americans, which the GOP ignores at its own peril," the eight prominent conservatives, including James Baker, Henry Paulson and George Shultz, each of whom held cabinet positions for Republican presidents, wrote in the report.
"The opposition of many Republicans to meaningfully address climate change reflects poor science and poor economics, and is at odds with the party's own noble tradition of stewardship," they wrote. "A carbon dividends plan could realign the GOP with that longstanding tradition and with popular opinion."
The proposed carbon tax aims to turn around widespread Republican skepticism about climate action by touting a market-based tool that may be more amenable to conservative principles than government rules and regulations. About half of polled Trump voters recently said they'd support such a tax.
Trump has taken office at a crucial time for the climate. The past three years have broken global heat records because of the effects of pollution from fossil fuels, farms and deforestation, worsening storms, floods and droughts. Nearly all nations agreed in late 2015 to a new approach to tackling climate change through a United Nations treaty.
Trump's strong support for the fossil fuel industry and his vows to undo environmental regulations have heightened concern about the climate crisis, prompting liberal states and foreign leaders to vow to forge ahead with their own climate programs even without the cooperation of the U.S. government.
"I would personally be delighted if a carbon tax were politically feasible in the United States, or were to become politically feasible in the future," said Harvard economics professor Robert Stavins. "At some point, the politics will change, and it's important to be ready."
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The proposal for a $40-per-ton carbon tax is more straightforward than the cap-and-trade system backed by Democrats early in Obama's first term, which was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. Environmental groups welcomed Wednesday's paper but indicated they would oppose efforts to eliminate other climate rules and programs.
"Whether it's the right plan or not, we certainly believe that there need to be conservatives at the climate discussion," said Jeremy Symons, a government affairs official at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund who said he was still reviewing the proposal.
President Obama built and strengthened environmental protections during his eight years in office using the types of big-government approaches that are opposed by many conservatives, including rules limiting carbon dioxide pollution from cars and power plants in the years ahead.
Many of the climate-protecting programs in place in liberal states and abroad impose fees on climate-changing pollution, particularly carbon dioxide, mostly through cap-and-trade systems. Such systems impose caps on the amount of carbon pollution that can be released. Rights to release some of that pollution are sold to polluters are traded among them.
China is rolling out a nationwide cap-and-trade system this year, while officials in northeastern states and European lawmakers are debating options for raising prices, which would boost revenues and further reduce pollution.
British Columbia is among the governments that use a carbon tax instead of a cap-and-trade system to reduce pollution. The tax increases costs of fossil fuel energy, making cleaner alternatives more economically viable.
"A price on carbon is the best, most sensible policy for making sure polluters pay for the damages their - our - actions cause," said Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist at Harvard who researched current cap-and-trade systems for the World Bank. "It helps ensure that prices reflect the full social costs."
Wagner cheered Wednesday's proposal but warned it would face political opposition.
"You need bipartisan support - you can't get to 60 votes in the Senate without bipartisan support," Wagner said. "If there are moderate Republicans proposing a sensible climate policy, it ought to be possible to get the Democrats on board."
The proposed carbon tax would differ from most other systems of pricing climate pollution that are being put in place around the world. It would not impose a hard cap on pollution levels, such as those in place in Europe and California and parts of China. And the revenues would be disbursed to Americans as cash instead of being used to reduce electricity bills or fund environmental programs.
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