Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) arrives for work at the Capitol on Dec. 4. The 80-year-old Republican chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is considered by critics to be one of the most notorious deniers of human-induced climate change. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

As we watch the new GOP-controlled Congress clash over the Keystone XL pipeline, it’s rather depressing to realize that this is just the beginning of the pitched, drag-out battles to come over climate change in the next two years.

Even bigger than Keystone XL is the coming fight over the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from older coal-fired power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan. Republicans hate it; to them it epitomizes everything they despise about command-and-control government regulatory actions. Democrats don’t love it, per se, but they think it’s sadly necessary (since they can’t get Republicans to pass a law to limit greenhouse gas emissions).

Yet, while watching the blow-by-blow, there’s been far too little stepping back and realizing how we got here. That’s the wrong approach in light of the following two facts: First, even proponents of strong climate action wouldn’t call EPA’s approach their first choice; and second, we also know enough about the psychology of politics to recognize that EPA’s approach — not that the agency can help it, of course — is guaranteed to produce a highly polarized partisan response.

In other words: We’re walking along a path that pretty much ensures partisanship and divisiveness. But there are signs that many Republicans these days may be looking for a way to gracefully surrender on climate change, and there’s still a solution available that isn’t EPA’s: a revenue-neutral carbon tax, with the revenue returned to U.S. citizens in the form of tax breaks or a dividend.

That’s right, Americans would make money off climate change, rather than being harmed by potentially higher energy prices.

The new science of politics and polarization

Before getting to why that’s the answer, though, let’s go over why the current course is so polarizing.

The past decade or so has witnessed a psychological revolution in political science. Through scores of experiments, political scientists have drawn on tools ranging from psychology to genetics to explain what makes people tick in politics – and also what inspires their responses in specific issue areas, such as the environment.

This research explains why climate change has become one of the most partisan issues in the United States. One study last year found that the only thing on which the left and right diverged more than climate was whether or not they liked President Obama.

To see why this issue is so partisan, you first have to understand our new psychological view of politics. Broadly speaking, political views are elaborate, emotionally rooted manifestations of divergent psychological identities. In other words, we diverge in politics because we first diverge as people; and we clash so virulently and uncompromisingly because we feel our beliefs at least as much as we think them.

Bottom line: Politics is pretty much the polar opposite of rationality.

This is true for the environment, just as it is true for many subjects. On the environment, there is a deep emotional divide between the left and the right that precedes and underlies all policy fights. The two groups are driven by divergent, emotionally rooted value systems.

Conservatives embrace a value system that puts a premium on freedom and liberty and that is often termed “individualism.” The idea here is that it is fair and right for individuals to succeed or fail in the world based upon their own merits, but it’s wrong is for government to step in and tip the scales by favoring one individual over another. Thus, individualists, in surveys, are much more likely to agree with statements like “the government interferes far too much in our everyday lives” and “society works best when it lets individuals take responsibility for their own lives without telling them what to do.”

Liberals (and environmentalists) are very different. They put a much higher emotional premium on protecting the weak and innocent (including not only humans but also plants and animals) from harm, and upon a communitarian approach in which individual freedoms are not paramount and must often be curtailed in the interest of the broader group and everyone’s safety.

Climate change is partisan today because it has become an issue that drives a gigantic wedge between individualists and communitarians. Conservative individualists have come to see dealing with climate change as a fundamental threat to a value system that places a premium on the individual’s ability to thrive, free of government interference, which in this case (they think) would take the form of tamping down on the free operation of markets by curtailing emissions.

And thus you actually have a situation where, as shown in Yale professor Dan Kahan’s research, as people get better informed about climate change — in other words, becoming more like our elected leaders, pundits and politically engaged citizens — they become more polarized over the issue:


Credit: Dan Kahan

Not only are individualism (and communitarianism) powerful predictors of whether individuals actually believe that climate change is real and a threat, but it turns out that if you reframe the climate issue in a way that favors solutions in line with the value systems of an individualist, you depolarize the issue. Thus, solutions like increasing nuclear power – which is seen as more of a business-oriented approach – or unleashing geoengineering schemes, which are perceived to rely on technological ingenuity – make conservatives much more willing to believe that global warming is actually a problem.

Conversely, what makes conservatives most unwilling to do something about climate change? A government regulatory solution, such as action by the EPA to force cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s precisely the approach that we’re now pursuing –not that Obama or the Democrats wanted it this way — because of a long history that centers on the failure, early in the Obama years, to get a so-called cap-and-trade bill through Congress, followed by the growing power of the Tea Party, which has been strongly dismissive of global warming risks.

There’s still a way out

What can break this logjam? First, the recognition of what eventually has to happen: Republicans have to accept the science of climate change, and Democrats have to find a solution that those across the aisle can also live with. And it’s unlikely the EPA solution is going to be the one.

So, what’s the answer? That’s pretty clear at this point: a nationwide carbon tax that returns all the revenue from the tax to citizens, rather than using any of it for new government programs. This is, basically, what the province of British Columbia in Canada has done by instituting a revenue-neutral carbon tax that has greatly lowered the taxes of citizens in the province.

Why a carbon tax? We’ve already seen that EPA’s approach, much like the Keystone XL pipeline issue, prompts polarization. And nobody really wants to go back to the other failed approach — cap-and-trade, which died in the Senate during Obama’s first term.

Carbon tax backers, however, include many conservatives and Republican economists, such as Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, who advised both President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. Mankiw argues for a carbon tax quite bluntly: “Basic economics tells us that when you tax something, you normally get less of it. So if we want to reduce global emissions of carbon, we need a global carbon tax. Q.E.D.”

One could go on and on about why economists think that carbon taxes are the best approach. Endless papers have been published on the subject. But what I’m interested in stressing here is that a carbon tax is also something that can be structured so that, of all climate solutions, it is the one that Republicans can most accept.

“I think the reason it would succeed is that it is the conservative solution,” says Mark Reynolds, executive director of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which supports a carbon tax.

A nationwide tax on carbon (depending on its size) would raise a large amount of revenue. One approach would be using that revenue to fund new government programs, for instance, in clean energy. That might be what liberals prefer, but conservatives individualists, who distrust government, will most assuredly balk.

However, if the tax is “revenue neutral” — meaning that the government does not keep any of the revenue, but rather distributes it to citizens — then it can’t be attacked as another big government “tax and spend” initiative. And thus, this approach has the best chance of softening the deep emotional reaction that individualists feel when they think about the climate change issue.

As for returning the revenues? The carbon tax could lead to reductions in corporate or personal income taxes. Or, it could be distributed to citizens in the form of a dividend, which is what the Citizen’s Climate Lobby supports. Both would be, er, rather popular — obvious political winners.

Better yet, neither of these solutions increases the size of government, one reason why “a carbon tax would be less polarizing,” explains Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center. “I’m a lefty guy, but every cent of this I would return to the American people,” adds Komanoff.

And while the EPA’s regulations of carbon certainly won’t wreck the economy (alarmist claims notwithstanding), a carbon tax would likely be better for it. Research commissioned by the Citizen’s Climate Lobby examined the impact of a tax on carbon of $10 per ton, increasing $10 per year, with all of the revenue going back to U.S. citizens through dividend payments. It found that this could actually lead to job gains — estimating 2.8 million over the course of 20 years.

That’s not to say there would be no problems with a carbon tax. There is much research on whether it would be regressive, having more impact on poorer citizens than on wealthier ones, given that there would be some increase in the price of energy, which makes up a greater percentage of total expenditures for low-income people.

This problem would have to be addressed in the policy design, but that’s not a deal breaker. British Columbia, for instance, dealt with it by providing low-income tax credits.

The solution…someday

That’s not to say that the GOP will be ready to fully back a carbon tax in the next two years. “I’m looking at this Congress as a time when carbon tax advocates are going to keep planting seeds, but I don’t really think we’re going to be harvesting anything in the next few years,” says Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center.

Compromising on this issue just won’t be easy. There is a very long history of attacking the existence of the problem on the GOP side, which thwarts the embracing of solutions and also enrages scientists and the left. Meanwhile, Obama has given up on trying to get Congress to pass a law, and understandably opted for the EPA approach because it was the one option that he actually had.

Nonetheless, atmospheric physics ultimately forces all hands. The climate problem is real, and it just worsens over time. The science won’t go away, the issue won’t go away, the world’s sense of urgency won’t go away — and the politics seem to be shifting in such a way as to make attacking the science of climate change harder to get away with.

So a time may come when the logic of this article makes sense — even if not today. But soon.

And if it happens in the relatively near future, the planet may still be savable.