Column: A carbon tax is a conservative answer to climate change

Published April 4 2016
Updated April 4 2016

When 21 Florida mayors from Miami to Tampa and St. Petersburg beseeched debate moderators to make the presidential candidates talk about climate change, I was cheering for my favorite question: "Can free enterprise solve it?"

Too often the question is, "Do you believe in climate change?" What's there to believe? Climate change is just data. The question is what to do about the data. The question is whether we can rise to full citizenship, full humanity. The question is whether we can own up to full accountability.

I believe in that kind of accountability. I believe that we are the stewards of creation and that accountability brings blessings. I believe that accountability drives the free enterprise system to deliver innovation.

In asking if free enterprise can solve climate change, we'd be asking something very fundamental of the candidates. We'd be asking if they believe in us; if they believe that we're up to it; if they believe that we have a moon shot left in us.

Many of the candidates have plenty to say about American exceptionalism, but some of them have a hard time walking the talk. Pathetically, some have essentially said, "We can't solve climate change; we're not China." So much for the American spirit of ingenuity.

Others have said, "It will hurt our economy." How? Did it hurt the American economy when we went from horse and buggy to Model T? Sure Henry Ford was bad for buggy whip manufacturers, but his inventiveness changed the world. Clean energy will be bad for existing dirty energy, but why would we want to keep on breathing stinky air? With billions of customers around the world waiting for cleaner, better, freer energy, why would we not want to lead that revolution?

One of the great satisfactions of being a mayor is having the ability to solve practical problems. In Florida, constituents live on the front lines of climate change, and they are not alone. Nearly 40 percent of Americans live in counties directly on the shoreline. Those folks don't want to lose their homes or their way of life. They deserve to know how leaders will address these issues, which have real human, economic and ecological impacts.

The mayors' open letter got right to the heart of the leadership required. They asked what investments candidates will make to protect coastal assets and coastal economies from the growing impacts of sea level rise and climate change; what specific policies they would put in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and what policies they would advance to ensure that America delivers on its international commitments.

Mayors asked the right questions because they're used to supplying real answers. That's what mayors do. Mayors keep their cities clean, keep the traffic moving and strive for a vibe of exuberance with safety. When seawater comes seeping up through storm sewers, residents call the mayor. When citizens' yards get flooded with seawater, they want action, not talk. When seawater gets splashed up on the undercarriage of cars, those cars rust whether the drivers are Democrats, Republicans or independents.

America can learn from mayors' leadership. As mayors know, when dumping in city-owned landfills is free, people dump indiscriminately. When cities institute tipping fees, people toss less trash. They change their processes, reduce their packaging and generally conserve.

Our atmosphere is the dump for emissions. If we allow people to dump there without paying for the harm their dumping causes, they'll dump freely. If we make them accountable for the harm their dumping causes, they'll clean up their smokestacks or lose out to a clean energy competitor who has a smaller smokestack or no smokestack at all.

A carbon tax is a tipping fee for the atmosphere. At republicEn.org we don't want just any kind of carbon tax, though. We want a carbon tax that's paired with a dollar-for-dollar cut in existing taxes on income, so there is no growth of government. And we want the carbon tax applied to imports so that our trading partners have every incentive to join us in stopping the free dumping into the atmosphere.

Some say that a carbon tax is too much to ask, that it isn't possible to get that scale of change, that we need to set our sights lower. Some even say that the people are too dumb; that they'll never "get it." We beg to differ. We believe that when leaders are optimistic, they're saying they believe in the people they represent. So can free enterprise solve climate change? You bet it can!

Bob Inglis was a Republican congressman from South Carolina from 1993-99 and 2005-11. He now directs republicEn.org, a group of free enterprise believers committed to action on climate change. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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