Not everyone interested in curbing climate change is tearing their hair out about Donald Trump's election. Though the president-elect seems to be packing his administration with climate deniers and fossil fuel industry veterans, a small, unconventional band of environmentalists sees potential.
“We hope,” says Bob Inglis, “that Donald Trump sees an opportunity to complete the sentence this way: Richard Nixon went to China, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform, and Donald Trump did climate change.”
In the last several years, Inglis—a former Congressman from South Carolina—has emerged as a spokesperson of sorts for “the eco-right,” a suite of think tanks, activists and politicos making the case for a free-market approach to environmentalism, grounded in conservative values. He now serves as the Executive Director of RepublicEn, a small advocacy outfit of self-described “energy optimists,” keen to dispel rumors that the GOP is the province of climate denialism.
Inglis’s optimism notwithstanding, climate-change activists have ample reason to fear a Trump administration. The president-elect’s pick to run the EPA has spent years challenging the agency in court. And his Secretary of State nominee, the former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, could green light new cross-border pipelines like the Keystone XL, along with new partnerships between oil companies from Houston to Moscow. A previously squashed $500 billion Arctic oil deal between Exxon and Rosneft, a state-run Russian oil firm, might well be on the table again if Trump lifts Obama-era sanctions against the country.
For Inglis and his colleagues at RepublicEN, though, the cabinet picks causing other greens to lose sleep have been welcome additions.
“If Rex Tillerson led Exxon Mobil away from the disputation of climate science, perhaps he can lead the Administration away from disputation too,” Inglis says, and he takes Tillerson's support for a carbon tax as an encouraging sign. When it comes to climate action, Inglis adds, the “environmental left”—encompassing everyone from Al Gore to anti-fracking activists—have been steering the conversation about climate change for too long. It’s time to “let ExxonMobil drive,” he says.
Inglis might seem out of step with the climate movement’s increasingly anti-corporate bent, defined by efforts like fossil-fuel divestment and the battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. But members of the eco-right see little contradiction between fossil-fuel companies’ bottom-lines and a low-carbon future.
Like other members of the eco-right, Inglis believes that efficient markets are the ultimate problem solver, and he has a general skepticism about all but the most basic of regulations. “The essence of [the eco-right] is all about internalizing negative externalities,” Inglis says, referencing the hidden expenses of carbon’s seepage into the atmosphere. He says that polluters are “socializing their soot and climate costs.” By making them pay and stripping out all energy subsidies, the thinking goes, firms will shift their business models accordingly, weeding out wasteful fuels, making the Paris Agreement and Obama’s Clean Power Plan superfluous.
“Our view of the Clean Power Plan is that it’s precisely the worst way to deal with climate change,” Inglis explains. UN agreements and regulatory pushes, Inglis argues, represent the kind of policies which keep conservatives out of the conversation on climate, because they are both too complicated and too confrontational. “I think the path in is mostly through the business community, where unlikely partners could really step forward and say, ‘There’s a free enterprise solution to this. Don’t give us regulations. Don’t try to tell us how to run our business. Just internalize the negative externality and we will deal with it,’” he says.
The holy grail of Inglis’s brand of eco-conservatism is a “revenue-neutral, border-adjustable” carbon tax. This kind of pricing mechanism offers a more elegant solution to the eco-right than the patchwork of regulations involved in Obama’s landmark climate rule, wherein each state arrives at its own plan.
Greens across the political spectrum have long backed versions of a carbon tax as part of a broader slate of emissions-cutting policies, some proposals for which would see dividends given out directly to taxpayers or put toward investments in clean energy. What’s unique about the eco-right position on the tax is their view that it should act as the centerpiece of a climate plan, as opposed to one component among many market-based and regulatory measures. In contrast, when Bernie Sanders and his “environmental left” ilk advocate for pricing carbon, they tend also to favor putting hard limits on polluters’ ability to spit greenhouse gases into the air.
Key, too, to the eco-right is swapping a carbon tax out for others—say income or corporate taxes—rather than adding the revenue to government coffers. “You put a tax on things that you want less of,” Inglis says, while allowing the price signal to drive carbon-intensive firms toward natural gas and renewable energy. Importers to the U.S. would also be forced to account for the carbon costs of goods produced abroad.
Carbon taxes don’t have the best track record. Norway set a reasonably high carbon tax way back in 1991, yet the country’s emissions fell by just 2.3 percent from 1990 to 1999. In British Columbia, where a tax was implemented in 2008, modest emissions reductions have been traced back to the fallout from the Great Recession rather than the tax itself.
It’s not clear how a new tax would affect corporate behavior. Oil majors have been factoring the likelihood of a price on carbon into their long-term financial planning for some time. Exxon first started accounting for a tax in 2007, setting its estimations for a price as high as $80 per ton in some regions. The company’s own spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle in 2016 that curbing warming to a 1.6 degree target—“well below two degrees,” per the Paris Agreement’s text—would drive the cost of carbon up to $2000 per ton, far beyond the level set out in any proposal currently on the table. A failed carbon tax measure in Washington state, for example, would have started the tax at just $10 per ton in 2017, and gradually scaled up to $100 by mid-century. Among the countries already taxing carbon, Australia’s fee is the equivalent of $23 per metric ton. Chile’s will be set at just $5 per ton when it takes effect in 2018, and apply to just 55 percent of emissions. Sweden has one of the highest carbon prices at $150 per ton. It doesn't apply, however, to the country’s electric power providers, and major industries pay about half of the standard tax.
Exxon’s Alan Jeffers affirmed the company’s commitment to a revenue-neutral carbon tax in an email to The Atlantic. Among the state and federal proposals the company had studied, Jeffers wrote, “The most significant common shortcoming is their failure to pre-empt existing greenhouse gas regulations. The pre-emption issue is important because a properly-designed carbon tax that replaces the existing regime of emissions regulations would be a beneficial policy rationalization.” In simpler terms, an Exxon-friendly carbon tax shouldn’t just avoid regulations. It should dismantle them, and place as little strain as possible on the company’s operations.
Exxon has gone so far as to back the Paris Agreement and its ambitious warming target. Even so, regulatory caps on warming—and strict ones at that—may be the only path to meeting them. A recent study from Oil Change International estimates that nearly 70 percent of already-developed coal, oil and natural gas reserves—not counting the ones fossil-fuel firms are keen to start mining—have to stay buried in perpetuity for a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees celsius, the “guardrail” of acceptable warming that the international community agreed to in Paris. To do that, the historical record seems to favor regulatory action over price signals alone.
In contrast to British Columbia’s 5.3 percent reduction post-tax, Ontario’s climate plan was able to scale down emissions by nearly twenty percent over a similar time frame. In large part, they did it by phasing out and then banning coal-fired power plants.
Asked if climate policy might need to pose a threat to oil industry profits at some point, Inglis suggested that threat would come instead from Tesla, Elon Musk’s luxury electric car company. Inglis reasons that if fossil fuels truly are inefficient, the better product will win out on an open market. But it’s not clear that Tesla will win in the mass market any time soon. The Model 3, the company’s first “mass market” car, intended to be more affordable than its others, will be released next year and start at $35,000. More than 56 percent of American families, meanwhile, have less than $1000 in the bank.
Eli Lehrer is another member of the eco-right looking to harness the power of the free market to save the planet. Back in 2012, Lehrer helped lead an exodus of insurance wonks out of the conservative and notoriously climate change-skeptical Heartland Institute. The final straw for him at Heartland was their sponsorship of a series of billboards likening those who believe in climate change to the likes of Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden. As an insurance analyst trained to assess risk, Lehrer could no longer square his research interests with his employer’s aggressive stance against climate science. He now heads R Street, another think tank produced out of the spin-off. Even if a carbon tax fails to bring down emissions, he says, “it’s still good tax policy.”
In 2016, the GOP’s climate politics are more complicated than they might look at first glance, with growing divides between voters and elected officials. Along with Inglis and Lehrer, 54 percent of Republicans now believe that the climate is changing and that humankind has played a hand in it. By contrast, just 14 of the 247 Republicans in the House of Representatives signed on to the Gibson Resolution, stating the urgency of climate change and the body’s commitment to addressing it.
As Lehrer notes, even if Republicans’ base is starting to believe in climate change, it is still a long way off from becoming a top line issue. For Republicans, in fact, climate change was this year’s least important issue, according to Gallup.
In spite of the polling, Lehrer sees state-level efforts at a carbon tax as “very likely in the next four to eight years.” If there is to be progress in bringing down emissions under Trump at the federal level, though, Lehrer predicts it will come via policies that have very little to do with the climate outright. “Some of the things that the administration seems to have said it will do seem to be pretty good from a climate change perspective,” Lehrer says, “in particular…increased natural gas development, support for nuclear power and pipelines.”
Natural gas development, he and the American Petroleum Institute argue, has been key to bringing down emissions in the United States. Yet while natural gas emits relatively little CO2, scientists say that fracking’s low carbon cost is overshadowed by the amount of methane the process spews into the atmosphere. (As a greenhouse gas, methane is about twenty times as potent as carbon dioxide.) As for pipelines, Lehrer contends they are a safer and more carbon-efficient means of transporting fossil fuels, as compared to train lines. Still, building pipelines in the first place requires that there be fresh batches of oil to flow through them, which means more greenhouse gases.
“Can I predict what he’s going to do? No, I don’t think anybody can,” Lehrer wrote of the president-elect in an email to The Atlantic. “I would not be totally surprised if he were to give some speech announcing that [climate change] was a major crisis, announcing a new Manhattan Project to deal with it. And I’d be equally unsurprised if he reiterated his comment that it’s a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.”