A US carbon tax?

by | Dec 5, 2012

Lots of Brits will, like me, have been pleasantly surprised – astonished, in fact – by Henry Porter’s Observer piece over the weekend arguing that

things seem to be changing rapidly in the US and that may just help create the circumstances for a new carbon tax, which is aimed at controlling the rise in global temperatures and which, astonishingly, might be acceptable to conservatives. The opportunity arises, however, not because conservatives have moved lockstep into Obama’s camp, but principally because of America’s vast budget deficit and the approachingfiscal cliff.

And here’s the the bit that really had my jaw on the table:

The most surprising fact in this hushed debate is that the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute is prepared to contemplate the idea and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has murmured that a carbon tax would not violate his principles.

Well, up to a point. In fact, while Grover Norquist had indeed made murmurings indicating some openness to a carbon tax, he’d backed away from that position very decisively more than two weeks before Henry Porter’s article (nul points for fact-checking there, Observer). Here’s Think Progress on the 13th of November:

Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist raised a lot of eyebrows on Monday when he told National Journal that a carbon tax might be on the table if it were swapped with a cut to the income tax. “It’s possible you could structure something that wasn’t an increase and didn’t violate the pledge,” he reportedly said …

But one day later, after being criticized by the American Energy Alliance, the advocacy arm of a Koch-supported energy think tank devoted to promoting fossil fuel development, Norquist has completely reversed his statement, saying there virtually “no conceivable way” he could support a tax on carbon.

“Grover, just butch it up and oppose this lousy idea directly. This word-smithing is giving us all headaches,” wrote AEA in its newsletter, while promoting a newly-published study  labeling carbon taxes “political cronyism.” Americans for Tax Reform issued this statement this morning: “Americans for Tax Reform opposes a carbon tax and will work tirelessly to ensure one does not become law.”

And here’s an excerpt from a piece in The Hill two days after that:

The entire House GOP leadership team has registered its opposition to climate legislation that raises revenue, underscoring the long odds that taxing carbon emissions has in negotiations on the fiscal cliff.

The Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity greeted Wednesday’s election of the House GOP leadership team by pointing out that the lawmakers are among the signers of the group’s “no climate tax” pledge. Signers agree to “oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” They include Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who all retained their leadership posts.

All this said, it does appear that there’s increased interest in a carbon tax among some US conservatives; as Michele de Nevers and Lawrence MacDonald at CGD note in a joint blog post, there was a big turn-out for an AEI-hosted event on the issue last month – and who knows what might yet emerge from fiscal cliff negotiations as the deadline looms ever closer? Even so, it looks like it would be unwise for anyone to hold their breath for a GOP Damascene conversion on a carbon tax – more’s the pity.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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