People, planet, and the path ahead
Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks about a plan to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan at the National Press Club in Washington Wednesday.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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What climate change action, Republican-style, might look like

New thinking

A group of prominent conservatives put forward a plan for addressing climate change. In some ways, it's a marker for the future. 

Climate-change activists keep knocking on President Trump’s door. Only this time, it’s not Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s former Reagan Treasury Secretary James Baker – backed up by a Mitt Romney tweet.

On Wednesday, Mr. Baker and a number of other big-name Republicans proposed a plan for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and publicly urged Mr. Trump to take action on an issue where “evidence … is growing too strong to ignore.”

Specifically, they pitched a tax on emissions, with the money refunded as “carbon dividends” to individual Americans to make it politically palatable.

Practically speaking, it's not clear how Baker and his colleagues are going to have much more success in swaying either Trump or the Republican Congress than Mr. DiCaprio. Republicans in Washington aren’t feeling pressure from their constituents to take action.

But if climate change currently looks like an impossible issue for Republicans in Congress to tackle, these advocates say, at some point it may be an issue that’s impossible for the party’s leaders to avoid.

“Climate change is not going away,” said Ted Halstead, president of the newly formed Climate Leadership Council, which pulled together the plan backed by Baker and others including Henry Paulson (Treasury secretary under George W. Bush) and George Shultz (secretary of State under Ronald Reagan).

The idea is that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, rising pressure from voters and the business community will force Republican lawmakers to change their positions. When and if that moment comes, conservative ideas are ready.

The idea behind the “carbon dividends” approach is to make Americans feel like beneficiaries, even as the tax would ratchet up over time in the interest of continuing to reduce emissions.

The tax would be imposed “at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy,” the group’s report suggests, while the dividends would be paid out to individual Americans “on an equal and quarterly basis.”

At an initial tax rate $40 per ton of carbon, “a family of four would receive approximately $2,000 in carbon dividend payments in the first year,” the report says.

As a nod to businesses, the proposal would remove carbon regulations as unnecessary once the new tax on emissions is in place. Environmental groups argue that regulations will still be needed, such as for pollutants other than carbon dioxide.

“Putting a price on carbon could be an important part of a comprehensive program. It can’t do the job alone,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in an emailed statement.

Not every backer of carbon pricing prefers this particular plan, but policy experts generally say carbon pricing is one of the most promising ways to steer fossil fuel use downward.

And they point to evidence that pressure is building on Republicans, from the widespread scientific consensus on climate change to businesses and cities increasingly viewing climate change as a reality that carries long-term risks.

Some polls show a majority of Americans supporting a carbon tax.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island has suggested there will be a coming “jailbreak” among Republicans on climate change.

“Talking to my Senate Republican colleagues about climate change is like talking to prisoners about escaping,” Senator Whitehouse wrote in a January opinion column in The Washington Post. “The conversations are often private, even furtive. One told me, “Let’s keep talking, but you can’t let my staff know.’ ”