Updated at 7:51 a.m. on June 25, 2019
For a good many years, a carbon tax was climate policy’s hottest plan.
The idea—that polluters should pay a dollar amount for every ton of climate-warming carbon dioxide they pump into the atmosphere—seemed like it had everything. It fought climate change, a progressive goal. It avoided new government regulation, a win for conservatives. And it elevated the magic of the market, delighting libertarians.
The idea looked even better when proponents proposed a “revenue neutral” version, distributing the funds back to Americans in the form of a quarterly check. Such a plan would avoid growing the government and would also lay the groundwork for some kind of universal basic income. It had something for everyone.
So it’s no surprise that in the middle years of this decade, the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax found support from think tanks, grassroots organizations, elite Republicans, and members of Congress.
Today, much of that support still exists. But the politics of a carbon tax have become scrambled. Even if a carbon tax has much to credit it ideologically, it may lack the political support of other climate proposals. A new poll, provided exclusively to The Atlantic, suggests that Americans may prefer a Green New Deal–style policy of climate-targeted investment and regulation to a revenue-neutral carbon tax. It’s one of several shifts, underscored by the events of the past month, that suggest a grim future for the once-optimistic plan.
First, the bipartisan dynamics of a carbon tax have frayed. Today, two members of Congress—Representative Ted Deutch and Representative Francis Rooney, a Democrat and Republican, both from Florida—relaunched the Climate Solutions Caucus with roughly 60 members.* The caucus, first founded in 2016 to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax, once required equal membership among Republicans and Democrats: No Democrat could join without bringing along a Republican. But that iteration of the caucus was creamed in the 2018 midterm elections, when it lost roughly 20 of its Republican members, stranding 20 Democrats. Now the caucus will retain those Democrats, putting its overall membership out of partisan balance, but it will insist that new Democrats find an accompanying Republican before they can join.
Second, Republicans are fighting over whether they can support any kind of climate policy at all. Earlier this month, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz warned members of his party in a memo that younger voters were turned off by the GOP’s climate stance. He recommended that members support the revenue-neutral carbon-tax proposal published by the Climate Leadership Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group backed by hundreds of economists, some environmental nonprofits, and oil companies. He cited his own favorable polling of the proposal to make his case.
But the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist also sent a letter to congressional Republicans last week, joining his Americans for Tax Reform organization with 75 other conservative groups to argue against any carbon tax in any form. Norquist’s coalition includes both climate-change deniers and representatives of core Republican advocacy groups.
Meanwhile, Democratic interest in a carbon-tax scheme has also faded. The party’s young progressive leaders have become more interested in an investment-involved Green New Deal package. Only one Democratic presidential candidate, John Delaney, has included a carbon tax in his climate proposal, while others—including Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden—have endorsed investment plans.
And finally, a new poll finds that a massive investment plan may be more popular—and less controversial—than a carbon tax. About 59 percent of Americans support a Green New Deal–style package of climate investment and regulation, according to a June poll from YouGov and Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank. About 22 percent of Americans oppose such a plan.
Only 50 percent of respondents supported a tax on carbon pollution, while 30 percent said they somewhat or strongly opposed it.
“I think the centrist establishment, the Chuck Schumers of the world, their concern is that the Green New Deal is unpopular,” Sean McElwee, the founder of Data for Progress, told me. “But actually, no, the strategy that centrist, Third Way–style think tanks want us to do is unpopular.”
If Democrats embrace a carbon tax, then “Republicans are going to steal the football away from you again and again,” he added.
“It’s generally advisable to take polling stats on these issues with a grain of salt,” said Joseph Majkut, a climate scientist at the libertarian Niskanen Center, in an email. While support for doing something about climate change is on the rise, he said, support for individual policies tends to vary based on who supports them and how they describe them.
“While the carbon tax is making inroads on the right, it is losing support on the left because of perceived new urgency on climate, coalition demands, and a growing anti-capitalist sentiment,” he added. “The challenge for carbon tax advocates is to capture enough support on the right, quickly enough, to compensate for losses on the left and look for a moderate compromise.”
* This article originally misidentified Rep. Francis Rooney's home state as Pennsylvania.