Amid the Sturm und Drang of Washington these days, it is easy for positive developments to go largely unnoticed. That was the fate of the Republican Climate Resolution introduced by seventeen Republicans in the House last month. The resolution was hardly radical in its terms and should have attracted broader support without difficulty:
Resolved, That the House of Representatives commits to working constructively, using our tradition of American ingenuity, innovation, and exceptionalism, to create and support economically viable, and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address 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.
The Republican House Resolution had no apparent impact on the Trump administration and may not have much in the House, at least in the near term. Nevertheless, despite its modest terms, and limited support, the resolution represented a noteworthy breach in the wall of indifference to climate change, and hostility to measures addressing it, that has become a hallmark of the Republican Party. That wall was reflected in the Republican platform of 2016 and has appeared to reach new heights in the Trump administration. While Trump has not repeated his earlier claim that climate change is a “hoax,” his policies have been quite consistent with such a perception.
The very day after the Republican resolution was introduced, Trump issued a proposed budget that eliminated funding for a variety of government research efforts and other programs addressing climate change. As OMB director Mick Mulvaney put it succinctly: “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that. So that is a specific tie to his campaign.” That was followed on March 28 with Trump’s sweeping executive order directed at reversing a wide range of climate change policies adopted by the Obama administration.
As the Washington Post summed it up in a March 28 editorial:
President Trump’s move to rip up Mr. Obama’s climate policies are beyond reckless. Children studying his presidency will ask, “How could anyone have done this?”
Climate science is complicated, but the basics are easy enough for those schoolchildren to understand. When humans burn fossil fuels, they emit heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Releasing vast amounts of these gases for decades changes the atmosphere’s chemistry, creating an ever-thicker blanket. The world has therefore warmed and will continue to warm; the more fossil fuels burned, the hotter the planet will get.
The human species still has time at least to moderate the trajectory. But on the course Mr. Trump set Tuesday, the prospect will be for sharp environmental disruption. Among many other things, scientists have predicted more and more intense heat waves, more volatile weather, more abrupt changes in the landscape, more destruction from invasive pests, more illness from microbes flourishing in warmer fresh water and more urban flooding. Americans alive today will saddle future generations with the costs of acting too late, when addressing the issue sooner would have been cheaper and far less destructive.
The Republican Resolution did not oppose any Trump action or support any specific program or proposal, but it at least left the door slightly ajar. Resistance to overturning EPA and other regulations is more likely to come from the courts than Congress—unless the 2018 elections bring striking changes to the composition of the House and Senate. Congressional Republicans, however, may support continued funding of some programs that Trump would slash or eliminate. For example, one object of severe cuts proposed for the balance of this year and in 2018 is the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), a branch of the Department of Energy. It is credited with helping to drive the rapid expansion of rooftop solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, LED lighting and more. A major portion of cuts to EERE would likely fall on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at Golden, Colo., the country’s leading clean energy research facility.
The projected cuts to EERE have reportedly alarmed not only researchers in clean energy, but “even some Republicans in Congress.” The latter include Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado whose interest is no doubt heightened by the presence of the energy laboratory in his home state. Still, Gardner’s argument seems quite consistent with the philosophy expressed in the House Republican Resolution and may be persuasive to other Republicans. As Gardner put it in a statement to the Washington Post: “There’s no question that we cannot continue on the same trajectory and must identify spending priorities to more efficiently and effectively operate the federal government; however, cutting the research and development done at NREL, where for every $1 of taxpayer money invested through the lab results in $5 of private investment, is not the answer.”
As Gardner suggested, taking climate change seriously does not mean rubber-stamping for preservation every energy program created during the Obama administration. Rigorous evaluation is clearly in order, but such evaluation is far preferable to Mulvaney’s sweeping and simplistic edict of “We’re not spending money on that any more.” Similarly, Republicans are not obliged to support EPA’s Clean Power Plan nor lament its impending demise, but they should be obliged to consider and propose alternatives. As the Post editorial put it:
The nation had a climate policy. Now it does not. If Mr. Trump has a plan that would significantly cut greenhouse emissions in a smarter way than Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan — indeed, a few senior Republican statesmen offered one just a few weeks back — he should propose it.
The proposal by senior Republican statesmen referred to by the Post is for a carbon tax. It was offered by members of the newly formed Climate Leadership Council led by James A. Baker and including Henry Paulson, George P. Shultz, Marty Feldstein and Greg Mankiw. The Republican credentials of the group can hardly be questioned: Baker, Paulson and Schultz served as treasury secretaries and Feldstein and Mankiw served as CEA chairs under GOP presidents. Briefly stated, the essence of their proposal is a rising carbon tax that starts at $40 per ton, and is returned in the form of a quarterly check from the Social Security Administration to every American. The proposal would be fundamentally progressive because everyone would receive the same amount of revenue from the tax regardless of their income level, and thus the new source of income would make a bigger difference for poorer people than for more affluent ones. Such a revenue-neutral “carbon fee and dividend” tax, has been popular among economists and has been endorsed by some leading climate scientists and advocacy groups. As documented on the website of the Climate Leadership Council, their carbon tax proposal immediately received broad editorial acclaim, but it has not yet generated broad political support.
In February, James Baker and his colleagues met at the White House with Gary Cohn, head of Trump’s National Economic Council and, more briefly, with Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway. There was no immediate sign that their visit had made a serious impression, but on Tuesday, the Washington Post provided a surprising report that the Trump administration is considering a carbon tax as part of its proposal for broad tax reform. The Post, however, also reported that such a tax was highly controversial within the administration, and it would no doubt be on Capitol Hill as well.
As noted, the Republican Climate Resolution did not support a carbon tax or any other specific proposal. In fact, several of the sponsors of the resolution took pains to distance themselves from the levy of a carbon tax. Nevertheless, the broader point is that if one rejects regulation, such as the Clean Power Plan and a carbon tax, what is the alternative? That is a question that must be addressed not only by the signers of the Republican resolution but by every Republican in the House and Senate who manages to escape the grip of climate change denial.