Tax Pledge Adds Another Political Hurdle to U.S. Climate Action

“They’re continuing to argue against the laws of physics.”

WASHINGTON—Americans for Prosperity might promote its "No Climate Tax" pledge signed by 530-plus local, state and national elected officials as merely a badge of fiscal responsibility.

But their critics view the carefully worded pledge as a power grab and yet another hurdle for broad action on climate and energy legislation when the 112th Congress convenes in January.

There are already many. 

For one, with the exception of New Hampshire's representative-to-be Charlie Bass, Republican freshmen legislators joining the House and Senate doubt the scientific veracity of global warming. Two, one survey shows more than half of all of the Republicans in the GOP caucus next year have questioned whether human activities are contributing to climate change.

And three, in addition to signing Americans for Prosperity's pledge, many Republicans have signed the "No Cap-and-Tax" pledge circulated by the tea party movement; or they have played a role in co-sponsoring a resolution intended to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency's scientific finding that greenhouse gas pollutants threaten the public's health and welfare.

Environmental advocate Jim DiPeso told SolveClimate News in an interview he is disappointed but not surprised that Americans for Prosperity is tacking this way with Republicans. After all, the conservative advocacy organization—which touts itself as a grassroots group that has attracted 1.5 million activists seeking to uphold freedom—is funded with oil money.

Ensuring that taxpayers aren't burdened financially by climate legislation is a laudable goal, DiPeso told SolveClimate News, but doing so via a political document dilutes its legitimacy.

What the pledge document is missing, he added, is a sentence explaining clearly that signers understand global warming is a scientifically proven problem that needs to be tackled legislatively.

"They're continuing to argue against the laws of physics," said DiPeso, policy director with Republicans for Environmental Protection. "It's more of the same nonsense we've been hearing when party leaders put political agendas and power games ahead of solving the real issue the country is facing. It tells people you don't want to do anything, that you just want to grab for power."

What About the Science?

James Valvo, government affairs manager for Americans for Prosperity, argues that signing the pledge doesn't preclude legislators from voting on climate legislation—as long as the bill doesn't include a net increase in government revenue.

"We don't advocate on the science," he said in an interview from his office in a Virginia suburb of Washington. "This is not about rejecting the science of climate change. The only way the (political) left can attack this is to talk about how these people signing the pledge are climate deniers. And that might be so."

His organization's Web site proclaims that incoming House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and the other nine members of his Republican leadership team have signed the pledge. Indeed, at least 153 representatives and 20 senators—a bulk of them climate change deniers—who will be serving in the upcoming Congress are pledge backers. No House or Senate Democrats have inked the pledge yet.

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions shouldn't be a cash cow for the federal government, Valvo said. He added that the financial structure of the cap-and-trade measure co-authored by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts—the American Clean Energy and Security Act—set off alarm bells before the House passed it in June 2009. Cap and trade is a system designed to make companies pay for the air pollution they generate.

"Our objections are with government bureaucrats getting their hands on more money," he said. "If there's a problem with climate change, how do we deal with it rationally? The private economy knows better how to direct money than the government does."

Remedying the climate issue shouldn't require a huge government expansion, he continued.

So, simply put, if pledge signers vote for a carbon tax that drives polluters' payments to the government, their measure would have to balance that out with cuts to other government programs.

While Valvo sounds earnest with his proclamations, skeptics note that Americans for Prosperity isn't exactly a struggling nonprofit organization.

SourceWatch, a Web-based resource published by the Center for Media and Democracy, calls it an astroturf front group founded by oilman David Koch and Richard Fink, who serves on Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries board of directors. Billionaire siblings, David and Charles Koch, maintain oil refineries in three states and 4,000 miles of pipeline.

In addition to slamming cap-and-trade legislation, Americans for Prosperity has opposed health care reform and the stimulus package. SourceWatch also cites an Aug. 23 issue of The New Yorker saying the Kochs are known for "creating slippery organizations with generic-sounding names," that "make it difficult to ascertain the extent of their influence."

Threading the Needle

If pledge-supporting legislators are intent on championing climate legislation without adding dollars to government coffers, their only option would be to support a James Hansen-like proposal, DiPeso said.

Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, has championed a dividend plan that sets a carbon price but calls for sending every penny back to taxpayers via a payroll tax deduction or some similar measure.

"If you're going to look for a way to thread this needle, to deal with the problems of emissions and not run afoul of the pledge," DiPeso said, "that's one way to thread the needle."

Legislators would have to be prepared to do some serious slicing elsewhere in government if they broached a cap-and-dividend approach similar to the one co-sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, or a variation on the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade theme.

DiPeso said he is doubtful the Congress convening in January will be able to accomplish any sweeping climate legislation, although small-bore progress on energy proposals might be possible.

"This problem of global warming is not going away and as time goes by, the idea of scientists being proven wrong is just minuscule," he said, adding that a price on carbon is necessary for regulatory certainty.

"The longer you delay, the costlier it gets. It's like a credit-card debt," DiPeso continued, adding that the International Energy Agency estimates the "belly-flop" at the December 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen will add $1 trillion to the cost of controlling emissions worldwide. "That's the price of delay and the job will be that much harder."

Leadership Void on Climate

His wish is that Congress would push the climate agenda by getting its toe in the door on a basic piece of legislation that can be strengthened over time.

"They'll find that chasms don't open up and swallow Washington, D.C.," he said with a laugh. "Utilities will see they can handle this and it will lance the boil of an argument that (regulating emissions) will ruin the entire economy."

In its report titled "The Climate Zombie Caucus of the 112th Congress," Think Progress—a project of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund—compiled survey records cited above showing that denial of climate science is rampant in the GOP.

Plus, all Republican representatives in line for key leadership positions of committees such as Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources and Science and Technology have made public statements indicating they doubt climate science.

Not surprisingly, the only House Republicans who seem emboldened enough to question their colleagues' tactics on global warming are those who were forced out of office in the latest election cycle.

Is Anybody Listening?

For instance, six-term Rep. Bob Inglis, who lost out to tea party challenger Trey Gowdy in the South Carolina June primary, lit into his fellow Republicans during a Nov. 17 subcommittee hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee.

"And I would also suggest to my free enterprise colleagues — especially conservatives here — whether you think it's all a bunch of hooey, what we've talked about in this committee. The Chinese don't," Inglis, the ranking member of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, told his colleagues during his five-minute lashing, "and they plan on eating our lunch in this next century.

"They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that'll lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button."

Inglis, who voted against the Waxman-Markey bill in June 2009, ripped skeptics for ignoring the advice of highly qualified experts who labor tirelessly to collect and explain scientific data.

"Since this is sort of a swan song for me ... I'd encourage scientists who are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress. Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But, I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach."

See Also

GOP Leaders with Poor Green Voting Records to Call the Shots in the House

Study: Only 47% of Republicans Think Global Warming Is Happening

Could GOP Election Victories Improve Odds of Climate and Energy Law?

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