Just one day after Donald Trump, surrounded by coal miners, signed executive orders to roll back Obama Administration energy and climate rules, the Partnership for Responsible Growth convened a symposium at the conservative Hoover Institution (two blocks from the White House) delving into prospects for carbon pricing. George Shultz, President Reagan’s Secretary of State and professor emeritus at Stanford, opened the event urging swift action to reduce climate risk with a rising tax on carbon emissions.
The first panel, discussing revenue, was led by Harvard economics professor and former Obama adviser Joe Aldy, who proposes a carbon tax to replace EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants. Aldy suggested that by funding cuts in business and payroll taxes, a carbon tax could spur economic growth; he also suggests a small fraction of revenue to fund much-needed clean energy research. He pointed out that British Columbia garnered popular support for its revenue-neutral carbon tax by initially sending revenue checks directly to households. Aldy expressed hope that mounting pressure to reform the U.S. tax code after three decades of stasis could offer a unique opportunity to interject carbon taxation.
Thomas Stephenson of Sequoia Capital, concurred that a simple upstream carbon tax is the uncontested climate policy of choice. Differences of opinion, he noted, are mostly about revenue options. In addition to replacing regulations, Stephenson suggested that carbon taxes could replace a myriad of costly energy subsidies and mandates. He suggested that many conservative objections to a carbon tax could be overcome if the tax is truly revenue-neutral.
Bob Perkowitz, president of eco-America, pointed out that states now face a $500 billion revenue shortfall. Consistent with conservative notions of federalism, Perkowitz suggested distributing carbon tax revenue to states via “block grants,” allowing spending decisions to be made on the state level.
Donald Marron, director of economic policy initiatives at the Urban Institute, stressed that a robustly-increasing carbon tax can be designed to meet any climate policy goal.
For example, Marron said, a modest tax starting at $25/T CO2, rising just 2% above inflation would easily achieve the Paris climate target while raising over $1 trillion in revenue over a decade. In the current Republican political environment, Marron suggested framing a carbon tax as a replacement for other taxes or as a source of funds to households, not as a source of revenue for government spending. He suggested that Republicans might feel more comfortable supporting proposals that “score” as truly revenue-neutral by the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office. Marron noted that block grants could be considered “spending,” but pointed out that the distinction between spending and “negative taxes” can become arbitrary.
During the question and answer period, Ted Halstead, founder of the newly-formed Climate Leadership Council, observed that FDR didn’t sell Social Security as a “payroll tax.” Similarly, he urged carbon tax supporters to emphasize near-term benefits. CLC’s proposal is framed as a “carbon dividend” to every household.
Maya Macguineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, opened the second panel on political prospects. She stressed that unlike other policies, carbon taxes address both fiscal and climate problems simultaneously.
Jerry Taylor, director of the libertarian Niskanen Center, is skeptical of the near-term political prospects for carbon taxes. Taylor finds it “unimaginable for Trump or Republicans to promote carbon tax… they will not fly into the teeth of big coal. Until [coal magnate] Bob Murray buys it, no [carbon tax].”
Taylor pointed out that Rep. Scalise’s resolution condemning carbon taxes last year (supported by all but one House Republican), was a reaction to lobbying for a carbon tax. In Taylor’s assessment, “Republican leadership is just as adamant as Charles Koch.” Taylor pointed out the stark silence of Senators McCain and Graham, who formerly supported climate policy. Moreover, Taylor noted, “there is no evidence of the needed political capability at the White House. I would be stunned if either tax reform or infrastructure advance.”
Taylor cautioned against reading too much into reports that roughly 40 House Republicans and 10 Senate Republicans are uncomfortable with climate science denial. Taylor suggested that discomfort with denial does not necessarily lead to support for a carbon tax. Instead, Taylor suggested, climate-concerned Republicans might embrace Bill Gates’ “breakthrough” proposal for technology funding or proposals for geoengineering. Taylor concluded, “even if there were a political opening for carbon tax on the Hill this year, we would probably miss it because key advocates are not engaged.” But he offered a ray of hope: Perhaps an opportunity after the 2018 election — if we do the legwork now.
Adele Morris, Climate and Energy Policy Director at the Brookings Institution, articulated three sets of reasons for carbon taxes. First: To slow unchecked climate risk. Second: To avoid a proliferation of complex, inefficient and mismatched state and local programs. And finally: To preempt the lengthy implementation and litigation associated with EPA’s sector-by-sector regulatory approach, which is not globally replicable and which could be revived by the next Democratic administration. Morris lamented the lack of engagement by environmental and climate organizations to support carbon taxes. Their past “distraction” by EPA’s regulatory approach was understandable, but is now moot. “There is no distraction now,” she quipped. Moreover, she pointed out that “any substantial carbon tax would beat the pants off” the climate effectiveness of the Clean Power Plan.
Bob Inglis, former Congressman (R-SC) and founder of republicEn, offered assurance that “political orthodoxy is more fluid than it might appear.” As a case-in-point, Inglis recalled that he’d taken a beating from constituents and other Republicans for opposing the 2007 Iraq troop surge. Now, he noted, Trump and many Republicans, including Ron Paul, routinely criticize the entire Iraq war. Inglis urged carbon tax supporters to speak in terms of Republican values. He suggested that Trump could sell a carbon tax with border adjustments as way to “make China pay,” to avoid getting tangled by UN agreements and to “make American win again.”
Walt Minnick, another former congressman (D-Id) and a co-founder of the Partnership for Responsible Growth, urged framing carbon taxes as “carbon-funded tax cuts.” Minnick suggested that the costs of delaying climate policy are large and seem to be growing exponentially. “We cannot afford to wait 4 to 8 more years,” he said. At the same time, he stressed, the U.S. faces growing and unsustainable deficits. In over 100 meetings with members of Congress, he said only two have expressed willingness to continue increasing spending without some means to pay for it. He pointed out that the House’s Border Adjustment Tax is “taking on heavy water,” and noted that there is little stomach in Congress for cutting the business interest deduction or the home mortgage deduction. Other revenue options, such as imposing a new value added tax, are even less palatable. In short: Congress will need ways close budget gaps; a carbon tax offers a way. His focus, Walt said, is on enacting a rising price on carbon; in that effort, all revenue options should be on the table.
Phil Sharp, former Congressman (D-In) and CEO of Resources for the Future, stressed the unique opportunity to interject carbon taxes into tax reform. Sharp is confident that tax reform will (eventually) advance and feels that it offers by far the best vehicle for a carbon tax.
The panel’s moderator, Jessica Tuchman Matthews, whose illustrious career includes directing the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, serving on the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a stint on the Washington Post editorial board, succinctly summed up the panel’s comments:
1. A carbon tax must be bipartisan.
2. The vehicle is tax reform.
3. Advocates must mobilize.
In response, Jerry Taylor suggested another “vehicle” for a carbon tax could be to fund infrastructure. Ted Halstead also disputed the tax reform “vehicle.” He noted that to be effective, a carbon tax must not only put a substantial price on carbon emissions, it must continue to rise over time. To build ongoing support for that rising price, Halstead urges linking a carbon tax to a “dividend,” distributing revenue directly to each household.
Congratulations and thanks to the Partnership for Responsible Growth, the Hoover Institution, moderator Alice Hill and all the panelists for continuing and advancing this vital policy conversation.
(Link to video, courtesy of Hoover Institution.)