Solutions to a problem like climate change — a massive, complex and expensive crisis — aren’t cheap or easy. They’re the kind of solutions that need serious political muscle, which isn’t easy to get in a country where one of two major parties ignores it.
The next generation of conservatives may change that.
Twenty College Republican clubs from across the country — including the University of Miami, Yale and Harvard — have banded together with a handful of College Democrat and environmental groups to push for action on climate change.
Specifically, the students are championing what’s known as the conservative solution, a plan that calls for taxes on carbon emitters that don’t reduce emissions. That pool of tax money would be divided up and returned to all Americans as a monthly dividend check. The theory is that would encourage both public support for reducing emissions and provide industry with a profit motive to do so. It’s a market-driven proposal proponents say could reduce and potentially eliminate the need for government regulation of damaging pollution.
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“It’s a very clever and inviting policy formulation that offers a genuine political win on both sides of the aisle,” said Alexander Posner, the 22-year-old head of the Students for Carbon Dividends movement. “If we keep our eye on the North Star of reducing emissions effectively and efficiently, this answers that.”
For Republicans, it gives them a chance to enter a debate that party elders have long avoided or downplayed. Posner believes that the party’s climate denial stance has scared away possible young conservative converts. New polling shows millennials, unlike elder generations, broadly believe that mankind should attempt to stop climate change, including nearly 60 percent of Republicans.
In the vacuum of conservative leadership in the debate, the U.S. has enacted some regulations designed to curb emissions. This dividends plan appeals to conservatives, Posner said, because it wipes away the two major fears Republicans have of carbon taxes — that the money would fund a nebulous government agency and that the American people would be deprived of wealth. They call it “revenue neutral.”
“If conservatives are interested in seeing their core principles represented, they need to speak up and take a seat at the table,” Posner said. “In many ways, this is a return to the conservative roots. What’s more Republican than conservation?”
The groups are endorsing a policy introduced in February 2017, called the Baker-Shultz plan after two of its main architects — President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury and White House Chief of Staff James Baker III and Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz. It’s popular among economists who believe that taxes are a more efficient way to guide the market than regulations.
University of Miami Economics Professor David Kelly, who studies environmental economics and policy, said economists generally prefer this plan or other versions of a carbon tax because it allows companies to choose which option is more efficient for them at the time: pay the tax or reduce emissions.
“If it turns out it’s really hard on the companies to reduce emissions, the economy won’t be harmed because everybody will just pay the tax,” Kelly said.
The plan has its detractors, of course. Kelly, among other economists, believes the tax money would be more efficiently spent reducing other taxes (like the recent corporate tax cuts) than refunding Americans. And there’s controversy over how another aspect of the plan — a border carbon tax on imported goods — would affect the economy.
Still, it’s the first time College Republicans have publicly supported national action on climate change, and it could signal a national conversational shift from “is this real?” to “how do we solve it?”
“Climate change deserves to be an issue that exists above political partisanship,” Posner said. “As young people with decades of our lives ahead of us, we stand to be affected by this.”
The newly created consortium plans to organize campus events around the climate action plan and encourage other college groups (including faculty) to join their cause. Part of that local activism could include pushing for universities to start carbon pricing on their campuses, like Yale University does.
J.T. Bon, chairman of the University of Miami’s College Republicans, said although he’s never been particularly passionate about climate change, after a conversation with Posner he recognized the importance of proactive action, especially on an issue that will disproportionally affect the city he lives in.
“Some conservatives have the mindset that, ‘Oh, climate change isn’t an issue for us,’ ” he said. “It is.”
He said his group plans to build a coalition with other Miami-based environmentally focused groups, before eventually reaching out to local Republican representatives to talk about the merits of the carbon dividend plan. The way to get this plan passed, he said, is to start from the bottom.
“I don’t see why conservatives would push back on it. If they aren’t open to at least a discussion on it then I don’t know,” he said.