The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More and more conservative thinkers want to tax carbon. Will politicians and activists follow?

President Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Miami International Airport on April 22, 2015. With Obama are Florida congressmen Patrick Murphy, a Democrat, and Carlos Curbelo, a Republican who wants Congress to work “in a bipartisan manner to mitigate the effects of climate change. ” MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

We’re in one of those moments again.

One of those moments where people (yes, mostly liberals) get together and hope really hard that the climate issue is becoming less divisive, that there’s going to be a breakthrough on the Republican side, and that we’ll finally achieve consensus to take action.

You can see it in the recent celebrations of former South Carolina GOP congressman and now climate crusader Bob Inglis, who just won the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” award for trying to convince his party to address the issue. And you can see it in the enthusiasm after New Jersey Republican governor and potential  presidential contender Chris Christie recently said he does accept the basic science of human-caused climate change.

Most of all, though, you can see it in the fact that prominent thinkers on the right are increasingly pushing — and drawing considerable attention for pushing — a climate policy idea that Republicans may have to strongly consider one day.

That idea is a carbon tax, supported not only by Inglis but libertarian Jerry Taylor — whose recently launched Niskanen Center seeks to advance pragmatic libertarian ideas in Washington. One of the first of those ideas is not just a carbon tax, but a carbon tax in exchange for getting rid of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a deal he thinks conservatives and libertarians can get behind — just as soon as they face the music and accept that some kind of climate change regulations are going to happen, somehow or other.

“We’re arguing that carbon tax is a preferable means of regulation,” Taylor told me recently.

The tax most favored by Taylor and Inglis would be “revenue neutral.” What that means is that after a tax is set on carbon dioxide emissions across the economy, the revenues collected by government would not stay in the government, and would not be spent on any programs that would enlarge government. Rather, they would be returned to U.S. citizens, either in the form of tax breaks or perhaps quarterly or annual carbon “dividend” payments.

This is an idea that already has been tried out successfully abroad — British Columbia is thriving under its own revenue neutral carbon tax (originally instituted by a center-right government in the Canadian province). And it could be politically popular: People like paying less taxes to their government, and they also like getting checks in the mail.

This is also an idea, I’ve argued, that stands a psychological chance of breaking the climate impasse. EPA rules to curb climate change through enforced carbon cuts are pretty much the best way to insult conservatives’ individualist value system, which prizes the free market. Whereas a carbon tax can, at least theoretically, be reconciled with free market economic thinking, and has many Republican economist supporters, including luminaries like Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw.

[The climate debate is brutal and dysfunctional, but there’s still a way out]

So, yes, a revenue neutral carbon tax may sound very appealing — especially to a liberal — an instance of smart policymaking and smart politics rolled into one.

But the fact remains that if you don’t believe there is any such thing as climate change, you won’t see the need for some catchy solution. And polls continue show that a substantial part of the Republican or conservative base denies that humans are causing global warming.

Conservative media continue to challenge climate science regularly, and then, there’s the part of the conservative movement that is built around, well, disliking taxes. “It’s just very very hard for anti-tax conservatives to stand down and accept the carbon tax,” Taylor told me. (Maybe the policy needs a politically savvy new name — like a carbon “refund.”)

So conservatives and libertarians like Inglis and Taylor may have the big idea that can break the impasse — someday. But they’ll also need political leaders to champion it.

So what’s happening lately in the conservative climate leadership department — beyond Chris Christie saying, more or less, something he already said back in 2011?

Jeb Bush also seems open to the reality of the climate problem — and South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham nearly broke the climate impasse five years ago. Perhaps he could do it again.

This week, meanwhile, in a story that most probably missed, we learned about a newly emerging climate leadership possibility: Carlos Curbelo, a just elected Florida Republican congressman. Curbelo recently visited a Miami-area school, where kids reportedly gave him 200 thank you letters for his willingness to address climate change. Last month, Curbelo also flew on Air Force One with President Obama for his Earth Day trip to the Everglades. One of Curbelo’s first introduced bills is an environmental one — to aid in getting back the costs of damages from offshore oil spills.

In Southeast Florida, with seas rising and streets flooding, you can’t miss the effects of climate change, and Curbelo represents a district that includes Key West and the Everglades – ground zero for climate change in the U.S. However, would he support a revenue carbon tax? That’s not clear — in response to an interview request, his press team sent me this pretty limited statement:

“I have concerns about the ecological impact that climate change has on our planet, especially as it relates to rising sea-levels…It is vital Congress works in a bipartisan manner to mitigate the effects of climate change and I’m proud to be a pro-environment voice in the Republican Party.”

That goes farther than what we expect these days from most Republicans, even many in Florida. But it would be pretty hard to call Curbelo highly vocal on the climate issue — yet. Liberals may get excited again here — and again, it may be premature.