Democrats and Republicans disagree: Carbon taxes

Editor’s note: This week the Democrats gather in Philadelphia to nominate a candidate for president and adopt a party platform. Given that there are no minority reports to the Democratic platform, it is likely that it will be adopted as-is this week. And so we can begin the comparison of the two major party platforms. For those who say there are no differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, just read the platforms side-by-side. In many instances, the differences are—as Donald Trump would say, yuuuge. But in one surprising instance, the two parties actually agree. This piece walks readers through one of the biggest contrasts, while an earlier piece by Elaine Kamarck detailed a striking similarity.

When it comes to Republicans and the environment, black is the new green. In addition to denouncing “radical environmentalists” and calling for dismantling the EPA, the platform adopted in Cleveland yesterday calls coal “abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource” and unequivocally opposes “any” carbon tax.

Meanwhile, Democrats are moving in the opposite direction. By the time the party’s draft 2016 platform emerged from the final regional committee meeting in Orlando, it contained a robust section on environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. One of the many amendments adopted in Orlando contains the following sentence: “Democrats believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities, and to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy and help meet our climate goals.” In plain English, there should be what amounts to a tax (whatever it may be called) on the atmospheric emissions principally responsible for climate change, including but not limited to CO2.

As Brookings’ Adele Morris pointed out in a recent paper, this proposal raises a host of design issues, including determining initial price levels, payers, recipients, and uses of revenues raised. It would have to be squared with existing federal tax, climate, and energy policies as well as with climate initiatives at the state level.

But these devilish details should not obstruct the broader view: To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the platform of a major American political party has advocated taxing greenhouse gas emissions. Many economists, including some with a conservative orientation, will applaud this proposal. Many supporters and producers of fossils fuels will be dismayed.

It remains to be seen how the American people will respond. In a survey conducted in 2015 by Resources for the Future in partnership with Stanford University and the New York Times, 67 percent of the respondents endorsed requiring companies “to pay a tax to the government for every ton of greenhouse gases [they] put out,” with the proviso that all the revenue would be devoted to reducing the amount of income taxes that individuals pay. Previous surveys found similar sentiments: public support increases sharply when the greenhouse gas tax is explicitly revenue-neutral and declines sharply if it threatens an overall increase in individual taxes.

Once this plank of the Democratic platform becomes widely known, Republicans are likely to attack it as yet another example of Democrats’ propensity to raise taxes. The platform’s silence on the question of revenue-neutrality may add some credibility to this charge. Much will depend on the ability of the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee to clarify its proposal and to link it to goals the public endorses.