Signs of GOP interest in solutions

Republicans have been slower than Democrats to accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real and that humans are causing most of it. And the other day President Trump motored over to EPA for a high-profile signing of an executive order aimed at undoing central portions of President Obama’s climate change agenda. Standing beside him was his number-one partner in climate change crime: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Yet there are signs of hope from the Grand Old Party. As Time magazine’s Justin Worland put it: “A small but growing number of Republicans have begun standing up for science.”

First was the February proposal by Republican heavyweights James Baker, George Shultz, Henry Paulson, Martin Feldstein, Thomas Stephenson, Greg Mankiw, and Rob Walton, under the banner of the Climate Leadership Council. Calling it a "Republican climate jailbreak strategy," they urged Congress to adopt a $40/metric ton carbon tax, with all the proceeds going back to taxpayers as “dividend checks.” Their initiative gave the drive to price carbon a distinctly Republican flavor.

Second was a strong pitch for climate action from the party’s 2012 standard-bearer. Governor Mitt Romney said it's essential that America lead the world's effort to address climate change and limit carbon emissions. "I happen to believe that there is climate change, and I think humans contribute to it in a substantial way, and therefore I look with openness to all the ideas that might be able to address that," he said… "The idea of doing nothing, in my view, is a recipe for disaster.

Third was the formation of a bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which as of today includes 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats. It was founded by Congressmen Carlos Curbelo (R) and Ted Deutch (D), whose trips home to South Florida provide regular and convincing evidence that the climate is changing and is threatening property and local economies. One Republican who joined the caucus recently is Darrell Issa, who has built a reputation as a hard-driving Republican. "Coastal communities, like mine in Southern California, are counting on us to come up with solutions that encourage a strong and vibrant economy, while also ensuring we are taking care of our environment,” he said. “Our country has some of the most innovative minds from anywhere in the world. I'm confident that by working together, we can tackle these challenges and come up with a better path forward. I'm pleased to join the Climate Solutions Caucus as a bipartisan opportunity for collaboration and also for its focus on economically viable solutions.”

Fourth was the March 15 introduction of a resolution by 17 House Republicans that acknowledges humans' impact on the climate and commits to studying and addressing “the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates, including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact.”

Fifth was a February 13 letter to the president from a bipartisan group of governors touting the benefits of renewable energy. According to David Roberts’ story in Vox, the letter pointed to the $222 million a year that wind farms pay to rural landowners and the $100 million a year renewable energy businesses invest in low-income areas. It asked Trump to help modernize the grid, support offshore wind development, extend renewable energy tax credits, and increase renewable energy research.

The letter came from the Governors’ Wind & Solar Energy Coalition, whose vice-chair is Kansas’ Sam Brownback, a longtime member of the GOP’s right flank. Here are some numbers that explain the governor’s enthusiasm for energy sources that, in the past, only Democrats could love: Wind power provides 30 percent of Kansas’ electricity. It has drawn $7 billion in capital investment to the state and supports, directly or indirectly, between 5,000 and 6,000 jobs there. Kansas landowners receive $10 to 15 million in lease payments every year from the industry. There are five wind manufacturing facilities in the state.

As Roberts put it in Vox: “Leadership on renewable energy gives them the chance to be heroes in the climate story.”

Sixth is polling showing that more and more Republican voters--even Trump voters--are rejecting the notion that climate change concern is just a big hoax; they want our government to take action. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change, half of Trump voters think global warming is happening, while only 30 percent think it is not.  Sixty-two percent support taxing and/or regulating the pollution that causes global warming, with 31 percent supporting both approaches. Half of Trump’s voters support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes by an equal amount, and 48 percent support setting strict carbon dioxide emissions limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies would likely increase.

There are those who say that GOP members of Congress aren’t all that interested in what their constituents think; what matters more to them is what they hear from four long-time sources of campaign funds: the coal industry, portions of the oil and gas industry, the Koch Brothers, and Grover Norquist’s anti-tax coalition. On February 8, for example, Norquist tweeted: “Now that the GOP can repeal all the anti-energy, anti-job regs--the Left offers to trade those regs for a carbon tax. Nice try. No.” There are signs, though, that this quartet’s power may be waning. Meantime, ExxonMobil’s former CEO, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his successor, Darren Woods, have urged adoption of a carbon tax.

Perhaps, in the wake of the health care train wreck on Capitol Hill, this is a moment for Republicans to snatch a victory--in fact, a double-victory. They want to cut taxes and see that as a way to bounce back from the health care loss. But they need a way to pay for those tax cuts. If they punt on a “pay-for,” they expose themselves to charges of hypocrisy on the need to control the national debt.

But the two pay-fors in the House Blueprint on tax reform are quickly sinking to the bottom of the Potomac. If, instead, the GOP opts for a $40/metric ton carbon fee, with gradual annual increases, there will be a $2 trillion flow of money to compensate for the tax cuts. This creative compromise offers Republicans a tax reform triumph and a free-market solution that would enable them to show Democrats that it is the GOP that found a way to beat back climate change.