Democrats seek GOP support for carbon tax bill, face questions about jailing skeptics

By Evan Lehmann | 06/11/2015 08:12 AM EDT

Two liberal senators appealed to conservatives yesterday to support a carbon tax, opening what they hope is a rebooted debate on climate change that focuses on legislation over science.

Two liberal senators appealed to conservatives yesterday to support a carbon tax, opening what they hope is a rebooted debate on climate change that focuses on legislation over science.

Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii chose to introduce an ambitious bill proposing a $45 fee on carbon dioxide at the American Enterprise Institute. The location was meant to convey an offer of partnership, they said.

"With this bill I extend an open hand … to conservatives everywhere," Whitehouse said in a packed room. "Whether you want to pursue tax reform, support the free market for energy, or as Lindsey Graham suggested this week, simply be honest about the effects of climate change, I’m looking forward to working with you."


Whitehouse was referring to the Republican senator from South Carolina, who’s the only GOP presidential candidate to express support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But intoning Graham’s name and other conservative references to national security, lower taxes and morality didn’t rouse overt support in the audience.

Instead, he and Schatz faced several grudging questions. One audience member claimed that Whitehouse supported jailing climate skeptics, which he declared himself to be. Another suggested the lawmakers had orchestrated politically motivated amendment votes on climate science to embarrass Republicans. Still another suggested that their bill would impose high costs on Americans for barely discernible decreases in future temperatures.

Even conservatives who might be allies harbored miffed feelings from the partisan fights over climate science.

Andrew Moylan, executive director of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank that supports revenue-neutral tax policies for carbon, asked how the senators could gain the trust of Republicans after they offered amendments meant to showcase GOP climate denial during last winter’s debate on the Keystone XL pipeline.

"They’ve been bitten a bunch of times," Moylan said of Republican lawmakers.

Schatz, who offered an amendment last January that said humans are "significantly" driving climate change, said it’s appropriate to pressure Republican lawmakers after so many have questioned the science. Five Republicans supported his amendment.

"That’s why we’re here [at AEI], is to begin, or at least continue, a dialogue in earnest," Schatz said. "If you establish the predicate that this is the scientific consensus, if you accept the premise that American leadership is required, then let’s argue about whether our carbon fee is too much or too little."

An ‘outrageous’ think tank?

The 37-page bill, named the "American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act," would impose a $45-per-ton fee on carbon dioxide emitted from upstream sources like coal mines and oil refineries. It would rise 2 percent annually with a goal of reducing emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels. In the shorter term, the bill is projected to cut emissions by at least 40 percent by 2025, according to a summary of the legislation.

The tax would raise an estimated $2 trillion in the first decade. That would go toward cutting the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 29 percent, provide $500 annually to individual workers through tax credits, give $500 a year to recipients of Social Security and veterans’ programs, and provide additional benefits to low-income and rural households.

The bill would not pre-empt the administration’s Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Pre-emption is widely considered a requirement for Republicans.

AEI has become a favored conservative venue for debates on carbon taxes, sometimes making opponents of policies on climate change cringe in anger.

In April, Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) visited the think tank to announce a $30-per-ton fee to a mostly supportive crowd. The location offered him a trusted conduit to Republicans, something that Delaney described as highly valuable.

"Every one Republican who steps forward on this is worth 10,000 Democrats," he said then. "And I’m underestimating that. Seriously."

A few years earlier, the policy shop was harangued by conservative media outlets for advancing carbon taxes in behind-the-scenes meetings with environmentalists, economists and other academics. To opponents, it resembled treason.

One prominent skeptic, Joe Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, said the group was practicing "pre-emptive surrender" by acknowledging that climate change is serious enough to confront with emissions policies (ClimateWire, Feb. 23, 2012).

Now the think tank is facing fresh attacks. It’s not just promoting climate policies, it’s allowing Democrats to introduce theirs in the hope of gaining conservative support, said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He thinks the amount of global warming is too small to be concerned about.

"It’s outrageous what AEI is doing," Ebell said of Whitehouse’s visit. "They are promoting a left-wing senator who’s kind of a hatemonger."

Defending competing ideas ‘to the death’

Other Republicans don’t see climate change through a political lens.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a freshman Republican from South Florida, says it’s important for his party to acknowledge that people are contributing to sea-level rise and other effects of climbing temperatures. He tiptoes around the type of legislation that’s needed to confront those impacts. But he wants it to lower emissions, whatever it is.

"I’m looking at everything. I’m not yet committed to a specific strategy. I think some of the proposals out there would be too damaging to the economy. I think there’s a balance," Curbelo said last week. "I think probably market-based approaches would work the best."

Kevin Hassett, an economist at AEI who moderated a debate on carbon taxes during yesterday’s event, defended the group’s invitation to Whitehouse and Schatz. He said the organization strives to be a place of competing ideas.

"That’s the atmosphere we want to produce here and defend to the death," Hassett said.

The debate following the senators’ announcement saw two conservatives clash, collegially. Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, argued that even a small risk of economically catastrophic climate change justifies an insurance policy — in this case a carbon tax that terminates the Clean Power Plan.

He said ideology around climate change is preventing Republicans from applying the type of risk aversion that’s widely used in economics.

"If you knew there was a 10 percent chance that we would have a major economic downturn along the lines of the Great Depression, would you continue to invest in equities? Heck, no," Taylor said. "Even though the return on equities is far greater than other investments you might make, you would very well hedge."

His sparring partner, Benjamin Zycher, a resident scholar at AEI, argued that the Obama administration uses a "deeply flawed" analysis of the social cost of carbon, upon which Whitehouse and Schatz base their carbon tax. He said a truly objective analysis would consider the potential benefits of warming on far distant events.

"A future ice age is virtually a certainty," Zycher said. "The only thing we don’t know is when it will occur. And so anthropogenic warming could be a huge benefit. We don’t know."

Perhaps nothing revealed the extent to which Whitehouse was in foreign territory yesterday as much as his past comments on prosecuting kingpins in the climate denial movement. Those might be applauded among friendlier audiences.

Instead he had to explain to an elderly man that he doesn’t want to jail him for not believing in climate change.

Whitehouse clarified that he only supports using civil anti-racketeering law, ordinarily used in organized crime cases, against fossil fuel industry officials who commit fraud when lying about climate change.

"But no, nobody went to jail, and it’s not just for being a skeptic," Whitehouse said.