25 June 2013 — US President Obama may have unexpected supporters as he prepares to announce his climate change strategy on Tuesday.

Conservative climate sceptic think tank the Heartland Institute and its breakaway R Street Institute effectively mobilised arguments for a carbon tax in the US during a recent debate; while in Australia Coalition Leader Tony Abbott loses support to abolish Australia’s carbon tax.

The unexpected turn occurred during the 15 June debate in the US held “among free market friends”, which was won by supporters of a carbon tax.

The event was jointly hosted by The Heartland Institute, which was described by The Economist as “the world’s most prominent think tank promoting scepticism about man-made climate change”, and the R Street Institute, another free market libertarian think tank that was created by former members of Heartland after a disagreement about Heartland’s aggressive climate change denial campaign.

In one well-publicised campaign, Heartland compared climate change believers to serial killers.

The topic of the debate didn’t broach the science, but whether there was a conservative argument for a carbon tax.

“Though the participants all share a broad vision of smaller and less expansive government, they have widely divergent views on the advisability of a carbon tax,”  the R Street Institute said on its website.

“This is not a debate about climate science or man’s role in changing weather patterns. It is a debate about the structure of tax policy and whether a carbon tax lies inside or outside the bounds of the debaters’ shared conservative principles.”

Moderator Peter Sinclair, of climatecrocks.com, said that – to the speakers’ surprise – the majority of 150-strong audience decided that a revenue neutral carbon tax could be acceptable to conservatives and libertarians.

R Street founder Eli Lehrer told ClimateWire it was an important result, particularly because “a year ago, there was no conversation on carbon tax” within the conservative movement.

John Weaver, a former political adviser to Republican presidential candidates, said the debate was a sign of changing times within the Republican Party.

“There is a debate internally, broadly, about… whether you have to admit that [climate change] is real, which I believe it is,” he said. “And secondly, are we as conservatives or centre-right activists going to offer solutions about it, as opposed to just putting our head in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist?”

Senior fellow at the R Street Institute Andrew Moylan, who argued in favour of a carbon tax in the debate, said the tax was an “authentically conservative solution”.

What R Street says

R Street’s Eli Lehrer and Bob Inglis said, in the following article posted on 21 June, that replacing payroll or capital gains taxes with a carbon tax could “reduce regulation, shrink government and stimulate the economy by cutting other taxes”.

If conservatives don’t begin to engage on the important issue of climate change, we’ll cede the debate. The result will be a larger, more intrusive government that hurts business and job creation.

President Obama is readying a major push of administrative action on climate change. There will be new regulations on power plants, new subsidies for clean energy and a number of other big government programs in the name of solving climate change.

To conservatives like us, complicated new regulation is our worst nightmare. There is a conservative approach to dealing with climate change — one that can actually achieve conservative goals: the government-shrinking carbon tax.

Currently, US tax law embodies everything that’s wrong with the federal government. It’s too big (about 17,000 pages), too burdensome (Americans spend nearly $50 billion a year complying with it), and too prone to manipulation. Working toward a simpler, fairer system with lower overall rates has long been a worthy conservative goal that deserves continued support from all liberty-loving Americans.

But amidst all the talk among conservatives about tax rates and tax-compliance costs, activists should focus on what may be the most important flaw in the current system: it taxes the wrong things.

If conservatives want to inject new ideas into the political debate and win elections, they should look at what the government taxes, as well as how the taxes get collected.

Over 90 percent of federal revenue comes from charges imposed on income, labor (payroll tax) and investments (capital gains tax). These taxes punish socially beneficial behavior; everyone agrees that society should have more income, jobs and investment. If there is any hope of moving the budget towards balance while cutting existing taxes, political leaders will have to find a better way to generate revenue.

Taxing the things we want less of and eliminating taxes on things we want more of is a common-sense solution. It’s hardly a new idea. The American founders funded the early federal government with sin taxes and a few import duties.

This doesn’t mean that existing sin taxes should necessarily go up–cigarette taxes are already more than 100 percent–or that taxes should be used to regulate personal behavior. It does mean that political leaders should look to tax things that are undesirable.

Taxes on pollution offer an attractive way to fund government while adhering to conservative principles. For example, carbon dioxide, the most important atmospheric pollutant, gets regulated largely via heavy-handed Washington bureaucrats but isn’t subject to a tax right now. Because power plants and factories emit a lot of it, replacing payroll or capital gains taxes with a carbon tax could reduce regulation, shrink government and stimulate the economy by cutting other taxes.

No tax, of course, is perfect. Proposals from the political left to use pollution taxes as a way of funding ever bigger, more intrusive government deserve strong opposition. Likewise, any effort to raise taxes on pollution should include reductions in regulations and taxes — particularly those imposed under the clean air act — as part of a political trade off.

Conservatives ought to take a close look at what American taxes, not just how it taxes. They’d be wise to do it quickly. Otherwise, we’ll miss the chance to establish a truly conservative approach to climate change. The question is: Isn’t it better to tax emissions rather than income?

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Abbott out in the cold on global warming

In Australia, Tony Abbott has famously pledged a “blood oath” to repeal the current government’s carbon tax if elected.

However, a new poll by JWS Research for the Climate Institute found that only 37 per cent of voters supported the Coalition’s intention to wind back the tax and replace it with a “direct action” policy, which has been criticised from within the party as being costly and inefficient.

“The carbon laws themselves are not a dominant reason behind those supporting the Coalition, nor is there majority support for their repeal or a double dissolution,” said Climate Institute chief executive John Connor.
“The claim that this election is a referendum on the carbon tax is without foundation.”
See our report, Dear Mr Abbott…