There's a climate "debate" in American politics today the same way there's a debate between a car and the wall it's driving toward. On one hand you have heated arguments among Democrats about whether radical, capitalism-destroying action is necessary to save the planet. On the other hand Republicans are rigidly opposed to even relatively moderate, market-based attempts to cut emissions—when one such measure was being considered by the Democratic-controlled Oregon state legislature this summer, GOP lawmakers literally fled the state to deny the Democrats a quorum and block the bill.
In that context, any sign of a hint that Republicans might be willing to even consider a compromise that leads to the federal government taking action on climate can be seen as a step in the right direction. So the formation of a group called Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, a coalition of right-leaning college students, could be justifiably celebrated. The group, Reuters reports, launched this week and "backs a market-based solution, calling for an initial $40-a-ton tax on carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, at mines, wells or ports where it is produced." This money would be paid out directly to Americans at the same time that what YCCD calls "burdensome regulations" would be slashed.
On paper, this sounds like a relatively straightforward and common-sense approach to a compromise on climate change. The plan YCCD is embracing is the two-year-old brainchild of Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration figures George Shultz, James Baker, and Martin Feldstein. The idea is also backed by Americans for Carbon Dividends, a PAC embraced by energy companies and co-chaired by former Republican Senator Trent Lott, and another student group with Republican members called Students for Carbon Dividends.
A lot of liberals oppose this plan, on grounds that David Roberts laid out in Vox last year. In terms of reducing emissions it's not as effective as alternative proposals brought forward by Democrats, and fossil fuel companies seem to support it only as a way to stave off more radical action.
Maybe more importantly, this theoretically bipartisan approach toward fighting climate change has failed to get any actual bipartisan support since 2017, when the former Reagan officials announced it to chin-stroking praise from institutions like the New York Times editorial board. A House bill introduced in January to create a system of carbon dividend system got 75 cosponsors, but only one of them, Florida's Francis Rooney, was a Republican. Rooney has also teamed up with Democrat Dan Lipinski on a separate pair of carbon dividend bills, which have no other cosponsors. The Senate's similar Climate Rebate Act has two Democratic cosponsors and no Republicans.
Though some observers took this spate of bills (none of which have any chance of passing) as a positive sign the GOP was willing to at least discuss climate, the party remains nearly entirely united against even the mildest form of legislation, as you'd expect given that House Republicans passed a resolution calling a carbon tax "detrimental to the United States economy" in 2018 (the same resolution reintroduced in 2019 has 24 Republican cosponsors).
This doesn't mean that the young conservatives who want a carbon dividend are being disingenuous in any way. (VICE reached out to YCCD for comment on these criticisms of the carbon dividend approach but has not heard back.) A recent Pew survey found that a slim majority of Republicans who are millennials or younger want the federal government to do more to combat climate change. Matt Gaetz, a 37-year-old congressman from Florida who is mostly known for his full-throated defenses of Trump, has made some noise about his party needing to do something about climate change. There are plenty of Republicans who would likely support the passage of some kind of carbon tax if they were in charge of the party.
But they aren't in charge. And when the Reagan-era officials were in charge, the administration they were a part of presided over a period of catastrophic inaction, at a time when a mild idea like a carbon tax might have made a difference. That they are now the face of a "bipartisan" half-measure that actual Republican politicians are ignoring is more than a little ironic, if too bleak to be ha-ha funny. The young Republicans urging their elders to act have at least figured out climate change is a problem early in their lives. Unfortunately, by the time the climate-denying GOP leaders retire or die out and bequeath the party to the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, it will already be much too late to meet any United Nations emissions goals. Conservatives worried about climate change may say the solution is a carbon dividend, but what they really need is a time machine.
Correction 12/13: An earlier version of this article referred to a provision of the carbon dividend plan that would have protected fossil fuel companies from liability. As of this year, that provision has been removed. VICE regrets the error.
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