Nixon went to China. Can Trump do climate change?

Plenty of people on the political left want action to address climate change. But many people on the right do to; they just are wary of big government. Perhaps the time is ripe for an art-of-the-deal solution. 

Gerald Herbert/AP/File
President-elect Donald Trump speaks at rally in Baton Rouge, La. He has sent mixed signals on whether or how he will respond to climate changes including warming global temperatures.

If America is going to be great again, maybe we could lead on climate change in a big, bold, new way.

Many of us didn’t like President Obama’s regulatory solution in the Clean Power Plan. Many distrust international agreements and don’t like the United Nations interfering with American decision-making. Still more don’t like subsidies because they mean that the government is favoring one well-connected fuel over another. For many there was a sense that their backs were against the wall and that the liberal elites were telling them what to think and how to be.

Many took Trump seriously but not literally when he tweeted that climate change was a hoax and a Chinese conspiracy. They’re looking for a climate solution that fits with their values and that’s consistent with savvy business practices.

So let’s approach this as if we were going into business together. It’s a manufacturing business so we’ll need lots of energy. We start looking around at various ways to power our plant – natural gas, “regular” electricity from the grid, electricity that we could make on our own, and “clean” electricity that would give us good-guy points with some of our customers who are into low carbon footprints.  

We ask our accountants to figure all the credits and tax preferences that are available, and they come back with a huge briefing book. The book describes all of the hoops that we’ll need to jump through in order to get the various credits and tax preferences. Some will expire before we have the plant up and going. Some may be phased out by this or a future Congress.  

We start wishing that this were simpler. We wish that we could make an apples-to-apples comparison and choose the energy source that makes sense for our business.  We want to pay our own way, being accountable for all the costs that our fuel choice may impose on our community and on our world. We want to be upstanding folks in the community. We want to satisfy greenie customers. We’ve got kids and/or grandkids, and we want to shine in their eyes.

We’re quick to point out that we have foreign competitors who get away with really stinking up the air in their countries. We know that their emissions affect the world’s air, and we’d be fools to be accountable for our emissions while they’re unaccountable for theirs.

We realize that we need some way of implementing a policy of accountability. We can’t do this on our own. This can’t be a voluntary thing. We need to require accountability. And we need the whole world in on it because air goes everywhere.

We hear the idea of accountability being imposed at the mine and at the pipeline and at ports of entry into the United States through a carbon tax. Impossible, we think. There’s no way that people who aren’t in business could ever understand why that’s the most efficient way to do this.

Then we hear the idea of pairing that carbon tax with a dollar-for-dollar cut in income or payroll taxes so that there’s no growth of government.  We hear another idea of returning all of the carbon tax money to citizens through an annual dividend check. We hear that we could win in the World Trade Organization if China or some other country challenges our imposition of the carbon tax on the stuff they’re importing to America.

Now that’s a deal, we conclude. But who could pull it off? No international agreement involved, just a bold move by the United States – a United States with the guts to say to our trading partners, “Challenge us, and we’ll meet you and beat you in court. Then, you can make your own decisions as to whether you want to follow our lead. If you don’t, fine, keep on paying a carbon tax on entry into the United States. We’ll happily take your money. But we are going to lead and bring worldwide accountability for emissions.”

It would be a big, bold deal. It would take a real dealmaker. Richard Nixon went to China. Bill Clinton signed welfare reform. Maybe Donald Trump can do climate change.

Bob Inglis, a Republican, directs, a group committed to free enterprise action on climate change. He represented South Carolina’s Fourth District in the US Congress from 1993 to 1999 and 2005 to 2011.

The Monitor's Inhabit section offers occasional guest columns on themes related to energy, climate change, and the environment. The views expressed in these "Inhabit voices" columns are solely those of the writers and are not endorsed by the Monitor.

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