July 25, 2024

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The Climate Gap Between Republican Voters and Republican Lawmakers

(Bloomberg) — Oregon was set to adopt a market mechanism for pricing carbon-dioxide pollution, joining 11 other states that use cap-and-trade laws to combat climate change. Then last week a group of Republican lawmakers fled the state capitol, denying Democrats the quorum necessary to vote on the issue.

It was the second time in a year that Republicans left town rather than risk losing the battle over carbon pricing. “The vast majority of Oregonians I’ve heard from are saying the cap-and-trade measures will do more harm than good,” one state senator, Kim Thatcher, said in a statement.

Polling disagrees. Even Republican voters support action on climate change, and market-based solutions are supposed to be more palatable to GOP sensibilities than strict environmental regulations. Yet so far Republican legislators have only been willing to support spending for new technologies—such as carbon capture or energy storage—rather than putting a price on carbon.

So why does this continue to fall into the partisan divide?

The reason for dichotomy is obvious to Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, which has received donations from fossil-fuel friendly groups and vigorously opposes carbon taxes. He dismisses polls showing rising concern about the climate among Republican voters as largely superficial. “When we ask people what’s bugging them, they don’t usually volunteer climate change,” he says. “And when they do, if you dive in a little deeper, you find willingness to pay any sort of tax or fee is very low.” Usually, Pyle says, that means “no more than $50 a year.”

Carbon pricing hasn’t yet taken off  but there are real-world examples of how it can work. Ten states across the East Coast currently participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and Virginia is about to join. Dallas Burtraw, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, says RGGI has raised billions for energy efficiency investments without raising the price of CO2 emissions all that much. In California, which has its own program, the cost of CO2 is at now $18 per metric ton, which for consumers is largely offset by plummeting prices for renewable energy.

Attempts to measure American public opinion have struggled to gauge commitment to the issue. Last month the Climate Leadership Council, a group led by Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen and other former leaders of the Federal Reserve, released a poll showing that 51% of Republicans want government to take action on carbon emissions, with those under the age of 40 supporting a plan to “charge fossil fuel companies for their carbon emissions” by a margin of 3 to 1. It’s worth noting that the poll presents the costs as falling on oil companies, rather than being passed along to consumers.

Another poll just out from Brunswick Group found that nearly half of Republicans support the Green New Deal, which doesn’t specify carbon pricing but which could be seen as a litmus test for concrete climate action. In this survey, though, the legislation is described as a resolution to cut emissions and meet 100% of U.S. power needs with clean, renewable energy sources “over a 10-year national mobilization.” The wording omits the potential cost of such a shift.

These ideas only gain high support among Republican voters if presented as a plan supported by all U.S. lawmakers, not Democrats. The actual Green New deal is partisan, of course, and the version supported by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes with an estimated price tag of $16 trillion.

Back in Oregon, local lawmakers have reason to conclude that carbon taxes are out of line with the Republican mainstream. In both 2016 and 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution denouncing carbon taxes largely along partisan lines. Earlier this month, House Republicans came out with their own plan to address climate change, explicitly refusing to include a tax on carbon. 

It will be interesting to see if the shifting landscape of corporate desires helps change public views. Some large oil conglomerates now support carbon taxes—in part because they’ve invested in natural gas assets that would benefit from any tax that makes coal uneconomical. BP Chief Executive Bernard Looney recently announced that not only would the oil giant be carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner but would also “more actively advocate for policies that support net zero, including carbon pricing.”

Pyle, of the American Energy Alliance, says BP doesn’t speak for the majority of smaller, independent oil companies in the U.S. That might ultimately put these companies at odds with Republican voters. “There is a growing disconnect,” said Kiera O’Brien, president and founder of Young Conservatives for a Carbon Dividend and a former president of the Harvard Republican Club. “Carbon dividends that rebate the money are immensely popular with my fellow young Republicans.”

O’Brien just attended CPAC, the influential gathering of conservative activists and politicians, to bring the message of support for carbon tax to party elders. “The unfortunate reality is that the political system has been ignoring this problem, especially on the right,” she says. “And you can’t just flip that on its head overnight.” 

Leslie Kaufman writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

To contact the author of this story: Leslie Kaufman in New York at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at [email protected], Aaron RutkoffJoshua Petri

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