Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the high temperature in Washington hit a record-shattering 74 degrees on Feb. 8, the day a bevy of Republican elder statesmen pitched White House officials on an appealing plan to combat global warming.
The plan for a refundable national carbon tax — endorsed by James Baker, Henry Paulson, George Shultz, and other GOP luminaries — represents a long overdue, market-based contribution from the right on the climate change issue.
We have long endorsed the idea of putting a price on carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere. Taxing fossil fuels where they enter the economy — at the refinery, the mining operation or the port — provides a powerful economic incentive to reduce carbon emissions. A tax is simpler and less intrusive than the Obama administration’s heavily regulatory Clean Power Plan, which targets electricity-generating plants.
The tax would boost the chances of clean energy sources becoming more competitive with oil, coal, and natural gas. As long as the carbon polluters can use the atmosphere as a free waste dump, renewable sources such as solar and wind will struggle to be economically viable.
Depending on how the tax is structured, it could produce rebates going directly to American consumers to offset higher energy costs. The plan promoted by former secretary of state Baker and his colleagues estimates that an initial tax of $40 on a ton of carbon would generate $2,000 the first year for a family of four.
And there’s built-in bipartisan support for the carbon tax idea, which originated with the environmental left. Al Gore likes it, as does Rex Tillerson, Trump’s new secretary of state and a former CEO of ExxonMobil.
“A carbon dividends program provides a rare exception: a simple idea that strengthens the economy and elevates the economic prospects of the nation’s disaffected,” the Baker plan says. “Mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore.”
There would, of course, be devilish details to hammer out. Imports from countries that don’t have a carbon tax would have to be taxed; U.S. exports to those nations would have to get a rebate. Environmentalists would want some or all of the revenue generated by the tax to be invested in clean technology research. Republicans say the tax would make environmental lawsuits and tougher regulations against carbon emitters unnecessary, a stance many Democrats would oppose.
The biggest problem is political: getting support from tax-averse Republicans in Congress and a new administration stocked with climate change skeptics. But with evidence mounting by the day of the harmful effects of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, the Baker plan represents a significant Republican-led effort to address climate change, one that’s more than a lot of hot air.