Left-right climate group quietly weighing proposals for carbon tax

A broad coalition of advocates has been meeting quietly to discuss a path forward on climate and fiscal policy, including proposals for a carbon tax.

The ad-hoc, left-right group has held several closed-door meetings since 2011, most recently gathering on Wednesday afternoon at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C.

The meetings follow the 2010 collapse of cap-and-trade legislation on Capitol Hill, and occur at a time when many Republicans are hostile to any proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions. 

David Jenkins of ConservAmerica, which was formerly called Republicans for Environmental Protection, has been attending the meetings and described them as “casual, brainstorming conversations.”

“Carbon tax is a topic. So are other things. It is not a concerted effort to push one thing or another at this point. It is diverse views around the table,” said Jenkins, who is ConservAmerica’s vice president for government and political affairs.

Jenkins said the meetings are held under “Chatham House rules,” referring to sessions where speakers are not revealed in order to encourage openness.

Tom Stokes of the Climate Crisis Coalition has been a facilitator of the meetings, sources familiar with the effort said. But he declined to discuss the session at AEI when reached Thursday, noting it was a “private meeting.”

Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — a conservative free-market and climate skeptic group — circulated a copy of the agenda in a blog post Wednesday and bashed the participants as the “carbon tax cabal.”

Representatives and scholars with groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, AEI, Public Citizen, the free-market group R Street, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities were slated to attend Wednesday’s session, according to the draft of the agenda that Lewis posted.

The agenda was titled, “Price Carbon Campaign / Lame Duck Initiative: A Carbon Pollution Tax in Fiscal and Tax Reform.”

One participant in the sessions said the advocates are thinking long-term.

“The meeting of a broad-based group of organizations discussed various climate policy goals that extend beyond the lame duck period,” a participant at the meeting told E2-Wire, using “lame duck” to refer to a potential second term for President Obama.

Lewis, a senior fellow with CEI, criticized the talks and took aim at efforts by former congressman Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) to promote a carbon tax.

“The GOP’s only clear product differentiator — and most durable political asset — is its reputation as the no tax increase party. The Inglis and AEI initiatives, if successful, would destroy this asset,” Lewis wrote.

Proposals for a carbon tax face very long odds politically, at least for now. With carbon taxes — or tax increases in general — viewed as non-starters in conservative circles, AEI has been tight-lipped about the meeting, which was the subject of a story Wednesday in Greenwire.

“In recent years, AEI has been accused of being both in the pocket of energy companies and organizing to advocate a carbon tax. Neither is true,” AEI said in a statement to E2-Wire .”AEI has been, and will continue to be, an intellectually curious place, where products aren’t influenced by interested parties, and ideas from all are welcome in seeking solutions for difficult public policy problems.” 

Advocates of a carbon tax call it a simpler, more efficient way than cap-and-trade to begin pricing carbon emissions.

Adele Morris, a Brookings Institution scholar who was listed on the agenda, declined to discuss the AEI meeting. But she said that “there is a lot going on in the analytical community” about the idea of a carbon tax as a way to address climate and the deficit.

Morris said that AEI, Brookings and the International Monetary Fund are sponsoring a joint event in November about ways to craft a U.S. carbon tax.

“This event is going to explore the design of a carbon tax and its role in broader fiscal reform,” she said, and noted other work in policy circles on the idea.

Inglis on Wednesday announced that he’s leading a new program at George Mason University called the “Energy and Enterprise Initiative,” which will provide a platform for what he calls conservative ways to address climate change.

He told the online magazine Grist that there may be a political opening in a few years, calling the effort a “long play.”

“We think it’s 2015, 2016 before anything happens. After the next midterm. Either a new Republican president will, under market pressure, say to the country that we need a grand bargain to bring down rates and broaden the base, and a great way to do that is to shift off of taxing income and toward taxing CO2,” he said.

“Or it’s a second term for President Obama and the same market pressure pushing Congress and the president to do something,” Inglis said.



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