For conservatives, it’s the ‘right time’ to discuss climate change

By Evan Lehmann | 07/07/2015 08:24 AM EDT

A panel of conservative policy analysts discussing the GOP’s latent role in environmentalism agreed yesterday that the Republican Party is damaging itself by surrendering the issue of climate change to the Democratic Party.

Correction appended.

A panel of conservative policy analysts discussing the GOP’s latent role in environmentalism agreed yesterday that the Republican Party is damaging itself by surrendering the issue of climate change to the Democratic Party.

They also appeared united on the idea that man-made global warming is real. But the analysts were scattered about how to address it. Among the suggestions were a carbon tax, "climate engineering" and getting very rich to better adapt to rising temperatures.


Yuval Levin, founding editor of National Affairs, a conservative quarterly magazine, said that Republicans are advancing the political interests of Democrats by dismissing the relevance of climate change. The result is more federal regulations opposed by conservatives, he said.

"Environmentalism is actually very fertile territory" for Republicans, Levin said at event co-hosted by his magazine and the R Street Institute. He said the way that conservatives talk about climate change could be "no more helpful to the left."

The event held in the Rayburn House Office Building symbolized a growing, if small, discussion about how Republicans could reorient their positions to deal with rising temperatures and an increasing collection of scientific findings on the effects of greenhouse gases.

A key theme was how to differentiate conservative climate action from liberal efforts, like President Obama’s regulatory regime known as the Clean Power Plan. Some of the speakers described those rules, which they see as expensive expansion of government, as a key motivator for acting more urgently on climate change.

Eli Lehrer, president of R Street and a proponent of revenue-neutral tax policies for carbon dioxide, suggested that he couldn’t support a carbon tax if it doesn’t eliminate the Clean Power Plan, currently being designed by U.S. EPA. That’s true, he indicated, even if the plan eliminated the corporate income tax.

"Without pre-emption … we shouldn’t do it," Lehrer said of a carbon tax. But he noted that pre-emption is "quite realistic" because Democrats appear willing to the make the trade for a broader climate policy.

Wrestling with pigs

But Oren Cass, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who served as Mitt Romney’s domestic policy adviser during the 2012 presidential campaign, said it’s politically unlikely that the rules on power plants would be traded for politically tenuous tax policies on carbon. He said there is "no grand bargain to be had," and any debate on climate taxes would benefit the Democrats.

"Don’t get in a mud wrestling match with a pig," he said, "because you’ll get dirty and the pig will love it."

Cass has recently become a strong voice against taxing carbon. He calls it a trendy new policy for conservatives.

But the "fad" will wane, he argued in several publications this year, because its advertised revenue is from "fantasyland"; the tax won’t result in domestic emission reduction goals, never mind global ones; and it won’t spark new technologies by raising the price on coal, oil and natural gas.

Cass also says that a carbon tax could be viewed by the fossil fuel industry as permission to produce more carbon dioxide, since the cost will be passed down to consumers. On that point, Cass compares the energy tax to the late fees charged by day care facilities: Parents no longer feel guilty about being tardy to pick up their kids because they’re compensating caregivers.

"For those serious about climate change, a carbon tax is not the answer," Cass wrote in the summer edition of National Affairs.

Jerry Taylor, who left the Cato Institute last year to open the Niskanen Center, a libertarian group promoting revenue-neutral tax policies for carbon, didn’t speak last night. But his group took aim at Cass’ conclusions before the event in a pre-emptive move that might reflect Taylor’s accomplishments as a designer of three medieval board games.

Battling over a carbon tax

David Bailey and David Bookbinder, fellows with Niskanen, criticized Cass for overstating the effect that supporters say a carbon tax would have on temperatures. A $20 tax isn’t sufficient to lower temperatures, the authors said in a blog post, but it’s a necessary step toward an international effort that could.

They also took aim at Cass’ argument that a carbon tax wouldn’t spur breakthrough innovations. Cass said rising electricity prices hasn’t sparked those advances, so it’s unlikely a new tax would. But Bailey and Bookbinder argue that it’s already happening. Higher-priced transportation fuel in Europe has helped result in carbon emission levels that are 46 percent lower than U.S. levels, they said.

"Oren Cass’s essay suggests that, for some conservatives, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — they hate worse than taxes," Bailey and Bookbinder say.

Yesterday’s event produced more than just passionate responses to carbon policies. It was sometimes met with jest.

Before it began, one audience member in a pinstripe suit poked fun at the idea of global warming by suggesting it caused another attendee’s broken arm by heating the ocean and giving life to Godzilla.

The speakers, though, suggested that it’s those types of dismissive attitudes toward environmental challenges that are hurting Republicans.

"I felt that we were not on the right side of it," Peter Wehner, a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said of climate change.

Now is the "right time" for conservatives to begin offering their solutions to the issue, he said, noting that lawmakers who say they don’t know enough about the science are exposing themselves to criticism. "They pass education bills and they’re not teachers," Wehner said. "They pass agriculture bills and they’re not farmers."

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Jerry Taylor as a designer of World War II board games; he designed three medieval board games, including "Hammer of the Scots" (Scottish rebellions of William Wallace and Robert Bruce), "Crusader Rex" (the 3rd Crusade) and "Richard III" (Wars of the Roses).