A small cadre of big-name Republican thinkers, disturbed by their party’s stance on climate change, are engaging in a nationwide campaign, launching on Tuesday, to persuade the GOP to embrace “conservative solutions” to global warming.
Over the past two years, tea party groups and fossil-fuel-funded super PACs have driven the GOP far to the right on global warming, as more Republicans question climate science or recant their former support of climate policy. That’s led to a rift between moderates and hard-line conservatives -- emblematic of a larger divide in the party -- as some moderate Republicans fear that rejecting climate change could lead their party to be branded as antiscience.
The Energy and Enterprise Initiative, based at George Mason University, aims to unite moderate Republicans concerned about climate change with hard-line fiscal conservatives who want to cut taxes and government spending. It’s led by former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., who has been on the outs with the right wing of his party since he lost his 2010 primary as a direct result of his support for climate-change policy.
On its own, Inglis’s voice might not be enough to change the Republican conversation about climate change. But he has the support of Gregory Mankiw, economic advisor to the Mitt Romney campaign and the former chief economist of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers; Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the influential conservative think tank American Action Forum, former head of Bush’s Council on Economic Advisers, and economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign; Art Laffer, the prominent conservative economist and former senior adviser to President Reagan; and George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of State, along with a slew of other conservative economic thinkers.
Mankiw, Romney's advisor, has long been a leading advocate of this policy -- although the Romney campaign declined to answer whether Romney himself would support it. Though Mankiw isn't expected to give speeches on behalf of the new campaign, given his involvement with Romney, Inglis described Mankiw as an "ally." And in an e-mail to National Journal, Mankiw wrote, "I am supportive of this effort."
Laffer, however, has already given one speech, at Vanderbilt University, supporting the policy. Last year, Holtz-Eakin held living-room meetings about climate change with New Hampshire voters.
The campaign will push one policy: a new tax on carbon pollution or gasoline consumption, paired with a cut in the income or payroll tax, creating a revenue-neutral, market-driven solution to an environmental problem while cutting taxes that conservatives dislike.
The idea is essentially to create a tax that will discourage fossil-fuel use and pollution while eliminating a tax in order to incentivize work and income. It’s an old idea that environmentalist and former Vice President Al Gore also has supported, but one that conservative economists say could be reborn in a next year’s effort to pass a sweeping tax-reform package.
The campaign will send conservative thinkers across the country to speak about the policy to conservative audiences, such as gatherings of college Republicans, members of the Federalist Society, or the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
“Conservatives have the answer to energy and climate—it’s free enterprise and fixing market distortions,” Inglis told National Journal. “Entrepreneurs and investors will deliver the fuels of the future. It will be faster and more efficient than government. It’s just a matter of conservatives stepping forward and engaging rather than retreating into denial about science, which is a strange place for us to be.”
The initiative will be a tough sell in today’s hotly partisan political climate, where any proposal of a new tax—let alone an energy tax—is explosive. But the moderates see an opening for the argument in a coming effort to overhaul the nation’s tax code, a debate in which conservatives will push to cut income, payroll, and corporate taxes.
And in addition to the big-name GOP economists, the proposal may also find backing in other, surprising quarters: ExxonMobil, the nation’s biggest oil company, has backed a carbon tax. The campaign also will work with insurance companies—long-standing allies of the Republican Party, but also a group which must take into account the projected impacts of climate change, such as property damage caused by rising sea levels and increased flooding.
Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and strategist who works closely with House GOP leadership on energy policy, predicted that the push is likely to gain traction on the Hill.
“I think it has the potential to be important, mostly because people who would oppose them are kind of asleep at the switch,” McKenna wrote in an e-mail. “It is also clearly an attempt to prepare for whatever sort of conversation we are going to have about tax reform in the next however many years.”
Still, McKenna said Republicans are likely to encounter plenty of problems in the details of the proposal.
“It suffers from a real lack of specifics," he wrote. "If you work the math, it looks like this: We use about 140 billion gallons of gasoline each year, and the payroll tax brings in about 750 billion each year. I realize that there are other things that would get taxed in such a regime, but if you simplify it, it looks like it would take a $5 a gallon tax on gasoline to clear the same amount of money. The guys who favor this never talk specifics, and now I know why—the specifics are incredibly unappetizing.”
National Journal attempted last year to survey congressional Republicans on their views on climate change. Sixty-five GOP lawmakers—40 House members and 25 senators across the ideological spectrum—agreed to respond.
Twenty of the 65 Republicans said they think climate change is causing the Earth to warm; 13 said that climate change isn’t causing the Earth to warm; and 21 said they didn’t know, the science isn’t conclusive, or they didn’t want to answer the question definitively. Nineteen said that human activities do contribute to climate change—but of those 19, only five said they believed a “significant amount” of climate change was due to human activity, while 14 said they believed human activity contributes “very little” to climate change. Five said they believed that climate change was not at all attributable to human activity.
The biggest obstacle will likely be opposition from influential conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, president of the group Americans for Tax Reform, who has signed 539 Republican lawmakers and candidates onto a pledge promising never to raise taxes.
“Even a revenue neutral swap would be an extremely bad move for taxpayers,” Norquist told National Journal. “It would create a new tax that would certainly grow over time—name a tax that didn’t ... and the old tax that was pruned back, would also grow again."
He called the initiative "a very bad idea for taxpayers and is clearly being pushed by advocates of ever-larger government … with a possible assist from ‘conservatives’ who have no sense of history.”
The true measure of the campaign’s success will be whether the issue is championed by key Republican lawmakers, who will have to agree to push for it as part of a tax reform package as well as stand by it on the campaign trail.
One key Republican with sterling conservative fiscal chops is already doing just that—with backing from an influential tea party group. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the current favorite to become Arizona’s next senator next year, supports the idea. In 2009, he co-authored a bill with Inglis to create a carbon tax paired with a cut in the payroll tax. And the bill won backing from the head of the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the influential tea party group with ties to the oil company Koch Industries.
Another possible backer is Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Environmentalists and the White House are watching the effort the effort closely. After President Obama’s effort to move a cap-and-trade climate change bill through Congress died—and contributed to the losses of many incumbent Democrats in Congress in 2010—Democrat-led efforts to push climate policy are likely to face a wall of opposition in the coming years. Strategists say an effort led by Republicans—a “Nixon goes to China”-type moment—is likely the only chance for moving climate policy before 2016.
"This is an important step. If the U.S. is ever going to get a carbon tax, it has to have a conservative address,” said Joshua Freed, director of the clean-energy program at Third Way, a Democratic think tank. "For this to morph from an aspiration into a policy contender, we need the heft of Republicans who hold office and are weighing the impact of reelection to settle in."