Climate change requires us to come together in common purpose. This moment beckons for leadership from conservatives like U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The moment also calls for progressives to open their minds to conservative solutions.
President Trump is poised to bypass the calling of the moment. His time horizon is short. He wants to win just one more election. He’s likely to double down on climate disputation, using it to stir up his base.
Meanwhile, there are other GOP presidential candidates and members of Congress whose time horizons are longer. They hope to win successive elections, and they’re keen to respond to young conservatives who want climate action as much as young progressives do. These leaders want to lead on climate, but they’re afraid of President Trump.
One way or another, President Trump will be diminished by 2026. Even if he’s successful in 2024, the last two years of a term-limited presidency are lame duck years. Perhaps by then, the longer-time-horizon leaders will assert themselves.
We shouldn’t have to wait until then for conservative leadership on climate. The issue cries out for the simplicity of a tax swap that conservatives could own (and which many progressives would embrace). Amidst all the talk of goals and timetables, subsidies and direct appropriations, international negotiations and agreements, comes a simple idea based on bedrock conservatism: reduce payroll taxes; tax carbon pollution instead; apply that tax to imports coming from countries without an equivalent carbon tax; watch the world follow our lead.
The world would follow our lead because it would be in their interest to do so. What country would want their exporters forking over carbon taxes to America when those countries could collect those carbon taxes themselves? There would be no need for complicated international agreements and protracted negotiations. Rather, America would be acting boldly, and the world would be following.
Importantly, we wouldn’t be growing government to solve climate change. Wage earners would have larger paychecks in their pockets because of the reduction in payroll (FICA taxes. That tax swap (really, an untax on income) would reduce the regressivity of a straight-up carbon tax, making low wage earners better off than they are under the current 12.4% FICA tax. Social Security, the recipient of the FICA tax, would be made no worse by this switch to a broad-based carbon consumption tax.
Best of all, we would be counting on free enterprise to deliver innovation. We wouldn’t be doing fickle tax incentives that need to be extended, thereby constituting full employment acts for lobbyists. We wouldn’t be attempting to regulate domestic emissions only to find worldwide emissions rising as U.S. manufacturers relocate to nonregulating places where they’d emit even more.
Admittedly, it’s a bold approach. It requires visionary leadership. Some counsel a more cautious approach where conservatives vaguely express support for clean energy and embrace functionary adaptations to climate change.
But “functionary” doesn’t cut it when “visionary” is needed. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t tell us that it would be more efficient to have water fountains usable by all races. He told us about his dream. President Kennedy didn’t tell us that it would be good for us to try for the moon. He told us that we were going before the decade was out. President Reagan didn’t urge the Soviets to put some doors in that wall. He told Mr. Gorbachev to tear it down.
The path is open for visionary conservatives who will step up with a bold solution: untax payroll; tax carbon pollution instead; apply the tax to imports. There are progressives who will see the opportunity to breakout of domestic-only regulations and Inflation Reduction Act tax credits that work only in America. Neither the conservative nor the progressive with be abandoning their principles. Rather, both will be discovering the path to American leadership.
We face a 30-year process of decarbonization. America can get the whole world in on climate action by using the tool of access to the American consumer market. Over the 30 years, policy stability is essential. That’s why bipartisanship is essential. Progressives cannot do this on their own. Conservatives have solutions that the left can embrace. We need bold leadership from conservatives. History is ready to reward those who will think more of the next generation than the next election.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC4 1993-99; 2005-11) is the executive director of republicEn.org, a growing group of conservatives who care about climate change. He lives in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.