Can Republicans Take the Lead on Climate Change?

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Republicans who acknowledge climate change in hiding here.

Many, in what is generally a politically center-right leaning business community, are starting to take on climate change, but the GOP still views such talk as heresy. Nevermind the historic fact the Republicans were often the party to lead on environmental issues: Theodore Roosevelt championed the American national park system and Richard Nixon presided over the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Even the Reagan (ozone) and Bush 41 (acid rain) administrations achieved some environmental legislation. Not all that long ago, progressives were Republicans, not Democrats.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, however, will not tackle climate change despite the overriding scientific evidence. Between the Tea Party and the Koch brothers, any Republican who dares to discuss climate change may as well bow out of the next election and join Edward Snowden—look what happened to South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis during the 2010 midterm election.

But there are Republicans who believe in climate change. Could a game changer similar to a Nixon moment (China) or a Clinton moment (welfare reform) occur? An op-ed written by a Capitol Hill staffer writing under a pseudonym suggests the GOP could tackle climate change via free market principles.

Here’s how the author sums up the Republicans’ attitudes on climate change:

The center-right has, quite frankly, buried its head in the sand for fear of being associated with those proposals to tax, spend, regulate, and distort. I’ve seen it firsthand. Many Republicans see no room for consensus and feel backed into a corner. The “safe” position is to question the science, especially the left’s most alarming and often tenuous assertions. But justifying inaction because the science isn’t “settled” is like saying we shouldn’t take on Social Security reform because we don’t know whether it will go bankrupt in 2030 or 2035.

What does the author suggest? First, end all energy subsidies, which arguably distort the market. While Republicans love to dredge up the Solyndra fiasco, fossil fuel subsidies are a far larger line item on the federal budget year after year—while energy companies are amongst the most profitable companies here in the U.S.

Next, the rogue GOP staffer calls for a “revenue-neutral carbon tax swap.” If structured correctly, such a carbon tax would cause a shake-out in the energy market as consumers and businesses would compete on cost and efficiency. A carbon tax would also cancel out some income taxes, the latter of which many economists deride as a drag on the economy.

Of course, the devil is in the details. The same author is quick to add snide comments about Democrats, suggesting a carbon tax authored by the left would only go to politicians’ pet projects. A few rebuttals: Republicans also have a long history of diverting “pork” to their own districts and states—and such pet projects, no matter how obnoxious, are a tiny sliver of the federal budget; the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations did a fine job of increasing both government spending and the national debt; and the argument reducing income taxes can boost jobs and investment has become a tired violin refrain. Plus, Americans’ overall tax burden is lower than it has been in 60 years. As The Economist repeats, the problem here is America taxes low and spends big. A carbon tax won’t solve the problem of entitlements, the past decades’ wars and defense spending—but a carbon tax could inspire innovation within the energy sector, with new jobs and exciting new products among the end results.

But this same author has a point: regulations also cannot mitigate climate change alone—ask anyone trying to open a business, any business, and the myriad of local, state and federal laws that benefit attorneys but not necessarily those willing to invest. As the cliché goes, there has to be a middle ground.

The end of subsidies and a market-based carbon tax would be a solid start. After all, a credible cap-and-trade program, if written correctly, could work the way the market-based Acid Rain Program helped reduce nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxides after Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act. The caveat, however, is the drafting of legislation that would actually work. Republicans are quick to criticize legislation for being too long and tedious—although my response would be that lawyers of all political persuasions do a great job of exploiting loopholes.

For now, the Republicans that are most outspoken about climate change are the ones with nothing to lose (former Secretary of State George Schultz, Inglis) or have fallen into irrelevance (former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). In some ways, the hard work on both sides of the political aisle is done by those who are no longer embroiled in the toxic debate too typical of Washington—such as Al Gore himself.

Watch for Bob Inglis to become the voice of reason on the right. His think tank, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University in Arlington, VA is tackling the challenges of how conservatives, especially younger ones and those in the faith community, can communicate how to fight the good fight. And Inglis talks logically: as the U.S. becomes the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels, the stubborn fact persists that we can drill everywhere, and under every rock, but from an economic standpoint, it will not affect the price of gas.

Meanwhile, Secretary Schultz at 92 years old lives the hippie dream—he drives an electric car powered by solar panels atop his Stanford home. The business community in the U.S. seems to get it, and is marching along with its own solutions. So here is the big question: why don’t the Republicans just ask some of their allies in the business community (and the military) what needs to be done?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image Credit: Leon Kaye]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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