The Carbon Tax as Publicity Stunt

The Republican Party is fully and unapologetically committed to the defense of coal, oil and natural gas at all costs.

Sometimes, you have to ask why people even bother. Are they gluttons for punishment? Do they get off on public humiliation? What makes someone pursue an obviously doomed effort?

It’s a question that will merit asking at 9:00am EDT this morning at the National Press Club in Washington, when Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) discusses federal carbon-tax legislation he intends to introduce on Capitol Hill. The proposed legislation has already found a sorta-fan in National Review writer Reihan Salam:

Representative Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Republican representing a swing district in south Florida, has just released an ambitious new carbon-tax proposal, and in doing so he has received plaudits from a number of environmentalists, including Eric Holthaus, who describes Curbelo’s bill as a long shot worth taking in an op-ed for Grist.

You might think it delusional to propose a carbon tax right now. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plans for a more comprehensive carbon-pricing system have faced intense political resistance, bolstered recently by the election of a right-of-center government in Ontario, the country’s most populous province, which is likely to be followed by another right-of-center victory in Alberta, the country’s most energy-rich province, next year. And the political prospects for carbon pricing in the U.S. are, to say the least, even less propitious than in our neighbor to the north. So why bother talking about it? To my surprise, Curbelo has come up with a pretty politically attractive proposal. For one, it abolishes the federal tax on motor-vehicle fuels. With a few tweaks, it could gain a head of steam.

No, it couldn’t. As Salam himself notes, last week the House of Representatives voted to denounce the very concept of putting a price on carbon to mitigate the threat of human-caused climate change; Salam nonetheless claims, “Perhaps a low carbon tax coupled with gas-tax abolition could sway some of them” to support the idea. Sure.

Last week’s vote proved beyond any doubt that the Republican Party, as an institution, is fully and unapologetically committed to the defense of coal, oil and natural gas at all costs; the party is militant in its opposition to even modest measures to reduce carbon emissions. Is it too cynical to suggest that Curbelo’s real motivation behind introducing his carbon-tax bill is to pull a Charlie Baker–i.e., convincing the more gullible members of the Florida’s 26th Congressional District (a district Hillary Clinton won by sixteen points in 2016)–that he’s one of the “good Republicans” heading into his fall re-election effort?

Perhaps not:

Curbelo’s likely Democratic opponent in November, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, accused him of political opportunism, noting that he voted in favor of the anti-carbon tax resolution in 2016 along with every other Republican in Congress.

“Just two years ago, Congressman Curbelo opposed a carbon tax and voted with his party to declare that it would supposedly harm American families,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “But now that he’s running against someone who has actively worked to fight climate change in our community, he wants us to believe he changed his mind.”

Mucarsel-Powell argued that Curbelo’s support for the GOP tax bill last year is evidence that he doesn’t care about the environment. The tax bill included language that opened up the National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for potential oil drilling as a way to secure votes from Alaskan Republicans, and Curbelo voted for the massive tax package even though he didn’t support more drilling.

“South Florida is ground zero for climate change. We deserve an authentic leader who stands up for what they believe in, not someone who only shows up when it’s an election year,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

This fall, climate-concerned voters in the 26th Congressional District-will ask Curbelo the obvious question: if you are sincere in your conviction that human-caused climate change is an existential crisis, why do you continue to align yourself with a party that embraces the idea that Al Gore made it all up? If he cannot answer that question, he will likely lose, carbon-tax bill or not.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.