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News Opinion Editorial

Climate and conservatives

When political conservatives start talking about raising taxes, it's wise to pay attention. Such is the case with a recently-announced campaign by a former South Carolina congressman who believes solving the nation's energy and climate change challenges requires a tax on carbon.

The goal of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, according to Robert "Bob" Inglis Sr., a six-term congressman who lost reelection in a 2010 GOP primary (his support for the 2008 federal bank bailout having hurt him with the tea party movement), is to explore and promote conservative solutions to U.S. energy needs and to climate change. That he even accepts the need to address man-made global warming sets him apart from many of his peers.

But Mr. Inglis is above all else pragmatic. He believes the free market can address both those issues far better than government regulators. As GOP economists have often pointed out, government should tax those things it wants less of and reduce taxes on those things it considers desirable.

A carbon tax, translated into higher fees paid on the acquisition or use of coal, oil and other fossil fuels, would seem a natural. Not merely because it would be preferable for Americans to switch to alternative fuels but because the tax would reflect the true cost of various forms of energy.

Here's another way to look at it. One of the shortcomings of the current price structure is that the "true" cost of coal and oil is underwritten by taxpayers who are saddled with such hidden costs as the health effects of pollution and, in the case of foreign oil, the high cost of military preparedness and intervention overseas.

If oil sold at its genuine cost to society, motorists would be inclined to switch to more energy-efficient transportation. Same for coal-fired electricity and the need to promote alternatives such as wind and solar power. A carbon tax would make both approaches possible.

Of course, Mr. Inglis as a fiscal conservative goes a step further. He would insist that all the revenue from such taxes stay in the pockets of consumers and not increase the size of government. So he also proposes that the money collected be used immediately to the benefit of consumers — in the former of lower payroll, dividend or corporate taxes.

That's an idea worth serious consideration. While we would prefer that some of that potential revenue (as much as $400 billion per year) was steered toward deficit reduction as well, using it primarily to reduce other taxes or to offset higher consumer energy costs is a fine idea.

The devil is in the details, of course, but the essential point is that Americans of both political parties must recognize that the country needs to take dramatic action to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, including relatively abundant coal. The realities of climate change are simply too daunting to ignore, and the sooner the U.S. takes action the better.

Surely, in a summer of record heat and a year of unusual and severe weather, that message is gaining some ground. Last week's news that Greenland has lost more of its ice sheet this year than at any time in 132 years of monitoring should give pause as well. As should the twice-the-size-of-Manhattan iceberg that broke off Greenland's Petermann glacier the week before.

What makes opposition to such a sensible solution especially galling is that reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil would yield so many benefits. Unlike domestic drilling, which would neither reduce consumer costs and demand nor do anything about pollution or climate change, a carbon tax would gradually push consumers into a sustainable economy. No more being held hostage by foreign or domestic suppliers of an increasingly scarce resource.

Mr. Inglis may publicly catch a lot of grief from his former colleagues on the Hill, but we suspect most privately welcome the conversation. Denying climate change is not a rational response to the challenge. Nor is screaming at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

At some point — perhaps when there's a pause in the "gotcha" daily assaults on the price of the First Lady's dress or whether the British had their feelings hurt by Mitt Romney's criticisms of Olympic preparations — climate change might enter the presidential political fray. Mr. Inglis has offered a worthy starting point for that debate; it's up to the candidates to run with it.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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