Here's how Republicans can win the climate change debate in 2020
© Getty Images

If the first Democratic debates were any indication, President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE and Republicans in Congress should get ready to answer a lot of questions on climate change in 2020. The percentage of moderator questions focused on the climate was four times higher than it was in the 2016 presidential debates and will likely increase.

And Democratic candidates swung for the fences with every answer. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (Mass.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerLGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Harris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates MORE (N.J.), and Former HUD Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroKrystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Booker notes 'anger' over more billionaires than black candidates in 2020 race Progressives cite racism, sexism in Harris exit: Women of color 'get twice the scrutiny' MORE all called climate change the greatest geopolitical threat to America. Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeKrystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate O'Rourke ends presidential bid MORE named it “the organizing principle to mobilize the United States.”

A new poll released last week from Reuters/Ipsos shows that this isn’t just food for the Democratic base. Nearly 70 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, say they want the United States to take “aggressive” action to combat climate change.

ADVERTISEMENT

That would seem to spell trouble for Republicans—until you look a little deeper at the same poll. It found that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to climate solutions that would that would result in higher taxes, which effectively means every Democratic proposal.

Plans recently offered by Joe BidenJoe BidenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans MORE, Warren, O’Rourke, and Inslee call for anywhere from $1.7 to $3 trillion in federal spending over the next decade, plus regulations and subsidies aimed at coercing trillions more in private sector spending. On top of that, most profess to support the Green New Deal—or the “Green dream,” as House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans On The Money: Falling impeachment support raises pressure for Dems on trade | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Biden eyes minimum tax for corporations | Fed's top regulator under pressure over Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Virginia moves to suspend Medicaid work rules | Powerful House panel sets 'Medicare for All' hearing | Hospitals sue over Trump price rule | FDA official grilled on vaping policy MORE (D-Calif.) put it—which would cost trillions of dollars.

Raising taxes on Wall Street or the rich will not cover these bills. Every American would be asked to pay, one way or another.

Unrealistic and politically hazardous though these plans may be, Republicans in 2020 can’t simply bank on throwing stones at Democratic ideas. They need an effective, market-based alternative. Their best bet is a revenue-neutral tax on carbon pollution.

Broadly speaking, there are three approaches lawmakers can take to shift behavior among consumers and producers. The first two are favored by the left and largely inefficient, requiring people or businesses to change (regulations) or paying them to change (subsidies). The revenue-neutral carbon tax leverages the third option: price the unwanted behavior (through a tax) to create a market incentive for behavior to change.

ADVERTISEMENT

A price on carbon would motivate companies to reduce CO2 emissions and hasten their adoption of alternative fuels. And the key here is that it would be revenue-neutral, meaning the government would effectively give the money it earns from the carbon tax back to the American people by cutting other taxes.

Alternatively, regulations targeting carbon emissions—whether directly (like the Clean Power Plan) or indirectly (like Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards)—limit market choices and create hidden costs. Subsidies aren’t any better: they get paid straight out of the general fund of the Treasury (our tax dollars) and put Washington bureaucrats in charge of picking winners and losers, incentivizing lobbying and suppressing free-market innovation.

This is why a carbon tax is so heavily favored by economists, including Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia University’s graduate school of business and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, who said that “it is clearly the most efficient way to deal with the problem.”
A revenue-neutral carbon tax checks every box for Republicans: it’s smart economically, environmentally and politically.

Democrats are already showing their climate change hand in the 2020 cycle. Not only are the candidates dreaming the green dream, but their base is calling for the political and media establishment to make climate change a marquee issue.

Last Wednesday, the night of the first debate, progressive activists camped out in front of DNC headquarters to demand an entire debate exclusively on the issue of climate change. Afterward, despite the relative showering of questions on the climate change, multiple left-leaning news outlets, from Vox to Media Matters, ran pieces criticizing the moderators for not asking more.

President Trump and Republicans running for Congress should brace themselves for the storm of questions on climate change in the 2020 cycle. Denying the problem or denigrating the left’s ideas will not cut it for the 70 percent of voters who demand aggressive action. A revenue-neutral carbon tax would not only satisfy, it would beat every Democratic idea.

Alex Flint is executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions