Chicago mom Greta Huizenga doesn’t think climate change should be a partisan issue. She’s not alone in that regard. An alternative healing practitioner, Huizenga says she typically votes for Republican candidates, most recently for Donald Trump.

Earth globe balancing on seesaw
Balancing conservative free-market principles with needed climate protections. Does new plan do it?

But Huizenga is frustrated by what she feels has been a dearth of viable solutions offered by either political party. “I don’t think the environment should be a political issue, but I think it gets muddled,” she says. She complains of too much propaganda, and not enough neutral leadership on the issue.

Not that there haven’t been valiant efforts to advance climate solutions, she acknowledges. But she says the Obama administration often turned to a regulatory approach – not a popular move for conservatives like Huizenga, who want less and not more government.

A group of the Republican “elder statesmen,” also feeling the itch for a more conservative climate plan, has moved to act on their concerns. The new effort by the Climate Leadership Council, a research and advocacy organization that favors taxing carbon, involves a carbon dividends proposal that aims to deliver both less regulation and less carbon pollution.

Conservative principles to reduce carbon emissions

The Council’s proposal is modeled around simultaneous economic, environmental, and political goals of reducing carbon emissions while also strengthening the economy, reducing regulation, and helping working-class Americans.

The plan – similar to an approach supported by the Citizens Climate Lobby, which is listed as a strategic partner – is anchored by four central pillars:

1. A slow-growth carbon tax. The plan calls for a federal tax on carbon emissions that would gradually increase, serving as a natural market-based motivator for businesses and consumers to reduce carbon impact. For example, oil refineries and other fossil fuel companies would pay a tax of $40 per ton of CO2 emissions, costs they could pass on to customers in the form of higher gas or electricity bills.

2. Individuals reap the benefits. According to the CLC plan, proceeds from those taxes would be returned to American taxpayers in the form of quarterly, tax-free dividend checks. For a family of four, the group says that $40/ton would translate to roughly $2,000 a year in the first year – which would offset higher energy bills, and, for most lower- and middle-class people, actually mean getting back more than they owe.

3. Export-friendly, import-neutral. The proposal also calls for adjustments at the border. So a U.S. company exporting to a country that doesn’t have its own comparable carbon pricing plan would get a rebate on the carbon taxes it’s paid. On the flip side, that same foreign country would have to pay a fee for carbon content on the goods imported.

4. Regulatory rollback – with replacement policy. The EPA Clean Power Plan is among several Obama-era regulations that President Trump and his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate have been keen to ax. In their proposal, the CLC plan authors call for phasing out the EPA regulatory authority over carbon emissions – instead, saying that dividend-based carbon tax would make such regulations no longer necessary.

Can the GOP elders' market-based tax-and-dividend plan achieve a suitable balance? Click To Tweet

The CLC proposal appears to many to have substantial appeal. The group authors – including high-ranking GOP officials under earlier Republican administrations – claim it offers significant environmental and economic benefits: They say the nation could nearly double the emissions reductions of all regulations applied during President Obama’s tenure – and meet the December 2015 Paris climate agreement commitments. They also expect their plan would foster a more certain policy future than would be possible with regulations, which inevitably would face lengthy court challenges and be vulnerable to changing political winds.

The initiative carries the imprimatur of long-time Republican “establishment” heavyweights such as former Treasury Secretary James Baker III during Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush; Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush; and George Shultz, Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon and Secretary of State under Reagan. (Keen political observers will doubtless note that it is precisely those kind of senior and “establishment” Republican leaders that candidate Donald Trump campaigned against and largely defeated.)

Smaller government, lower emissions, and a populist appeal? There’s little wonder the plan has garnered some very favorable attention, notwithstanding the steep climb any such climate change/global warming carbon tax initiative no doubt would face under the current administration and Republican-controlled House and Senate leadership.

Positive substantive reviews

“May be a breakthrough,” declared the New York Times editorial board. “Intelligent economics,” wrote the Financial Times. “Deserves serious consideration,” lauded USA Today. “Entirely sensible,” according to Nature.

In addition to editorial analysts, a number of leading economics, environmental, and policy leaders also have rallied around aspects of the plan, if in some cases only because they see troubling writing on the wall for the EPA Clean Power Plan regulations.

“We know that climate change is one of the defining challenges facing our generation, and we’re going to need solutions from both sides of the aisle,” said Susanne Brooks, the Environmental Defense Fund’s director of U.S. climate policy in a phone interview. “So we were really encouraged to see this group of really eminent Republicans put forth what we think is a serious proposal.”

“It’s very exciting to see these great leaders of the Reagan coalition leading still,” wrote former South Carolina Republican Congresssman Bob Inglis, whose Republican primary defeat is widely attributed to his having accepted the “mainstream” climate science evidence. Now Executive Director of republicEn, Inglis, who has been working to win over Republican conservatives’ support, wrote in an e-mail that “With thought leaders like these presenting this sort of efficient, free enterprise solution, we’re feeling momentum rising, [and …] we’re glad to be taking this message to the heartland and to Capitol Hill.”

Veteran environmental policy expert Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program, wrote in an e-mail that the CLC initiative “would be highly effective if implemented.”

But, as he indicates, the key word here may well be if.

If it can be enacted … a big if

With Republicans controlling the U.S. House and Senate, and also the White House, one might think the prospects for a market-based climate plan steeped in conservative ideologies would have real potential.

Not so fast. It’s not that simple.

For environmentalists, there’s the question of whether the plan goes far enough in emissions-reductions requirements.

“For us what’s missing from this otherwise great proposal is the sense of structure or framework that will help give us the assurance or guarantee that ensures environmental integrity,” EDF’s Brooks says. “We really need built-in insurance to ensure we get the kind of reductions we need.”

The other hitch of the plan is the lock-step political opposition to climate change science and policy within GOP congressional ranks.

“Its political feasibility in the current political climate in Washington is very limited,” Stavins says. As Bloomberg’s editorial board has pointed out, President Trump and GOP congressional leaders have historically opposed the very notion of a carbon tax and have expressed strong support for coal.

Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy and operations for republicEN, wrote in an email that there are “plenty of reasons for cynicism. But there’s also some reason for optimism, and we’re choosing to run to those bright spots.” He points to increased republicEN membership, more members in the Climate Solutions Caucus, and occasional hopeful signs from some Trump administration officials..

“Republicans run everything now, there’s no policy risk from conceding the urgency of climate change,” he added. “Republicans have the moral and legal obligation to address climate change, but the greatest limiting factor remains their perception that constituents don’t care much. So we’re trying to change that.”*

With climate scientists continuing to press their concerns over impacts of a warming climate and of steadily increasing atmospheric carbon concentrations, and with EPA and its Clean Power Plan regulations facing stiff opposition from the Trump administration and supportive congressional leaders, time may be growing short for some sort of bipartisan collaborative approach to climate change.

Still, Huizenga, the Trump voter in Chicago, says she remains hopeful that the new CLC policy represents a meaningful path forward. She sees in the proposal what she calls “sensible” policy and a way for Republican leaders to earn “street cred” on an issue that’s only going to get more serious as time passes.

“They should really capitalize on this opportunity to do the right thing and just get it done,” Huizenga says.

And she points out that she’s got one of the few non-partisan values top of mind: protecting her children’s future.

Editor’s Note:  The two Bozmoski paragraphs, inadvertently omitted, were added to this post on March 16, a day after the initial posting. 

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