Frum the horses’s mouth

David Frum Illustration by Jack D.
Illustration by Jack D.

Last fall, the Pew Research Center found that 67 per cent of Americans believe global warming is a reality. That’s up 10 percentage points from 2009. Problem is, a majority of them – 58 per cent – still believe human activity has very little to do with it.

And that’s based on a survey of Americans of all political stripes. Zeroing in on Republicans who supported Mitt Romney during the election, only 42 per cent agreed global warming was happening and a whopping 82 per cent denied that humans have anything significant to do with it.

This makes it tremendously difficult in the U.S. context to talk about pricing carbon, let alone take the necessary steps to follow through, particularly in such dire economic times. But Republican insider and columnist David Frum, a former speech writer for George W. Bush, believes it will happen, probably should happen, and that a tax on carbon is the way to go.

In his view, energy security should be the top priority, followed by the cleanliness of an energy source. A carbon tax addresses both: First and foremost, it encourages reductions in energy use, but it also gives domestically produced natural gas, nuclear power and renewables more equal footing with imported oil and domestic coal. The market would ultimately decide the mix.

As Frum wrote in his 2008 book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, “You don’t have to believe that global warming is a problem to recognize that a carbon tax is the solution.”

And cost? Frum has argued there are many proposals out there that would numb the impact of a carbon tax. It would have to be carefully designed, but he maintains it can be done.

His stance hasn’t made him popular with fellow Republicans, particularly those of Tea Party persuasion. But his position is based on a political calculation. For Republicans to win – for the GOP to gain credibility with mainstream America – Frum sees the need to become less extreme, more flexible and better tuned to the middle class. When it comes to climate change, winning independents and moderates means offering a viable alternative that can neutralize the green edge currently held by the Democrats.

Spearheading a carbon tax on Republican terms would accomplish this. And, Frum once wrote, “nothing could possibly flummox the left more.” The following is an excerpt of a recent conversation with Frum on this issue:

CK: Why support a carbon tax over a market-based approach such as cap-and-trade?

FRUM: If you’re looking at the American context, you have to ask yourself how the idea you have looks like going into Congress, and then how it will look coming out. With cap-and-trade, the question is who gets the caps? How much? On what basis? Would the allotments be auctioned off? Would they be grandfathered? One of the things to always remember about the United States is that its system of administration is way more politicized than administrations in any other country. A carbon tax is just much cleaner to administer. Anywhere, but especially in the United States, you want to focus on programs that are very simple. The carbon tax is and cap-and-trade is not.

CK: How do you sell it to Americans?

FRUM: First, you have to make people aware that there’s a problem. And second, you have to package this in such a way that people get relief. One important thing is that before the current fiscal situation, it was possible to talk about a revenue-neutral carbon tax for consumers. In today’s world, that gets more difficult. The problem is around who gets the benefits? Certain regions are going to lose, and certain regions are going to benefit, and that’s why there is so much resistance to it. People who live in New York City should not receive the same (rebate) cheque as people who live in North Carolina. And this should not simply be an opportunity for the government to gouge them.

CK: Can it happen?

FRUM: I am confident that it will happen. Yet I think that the United States has an immediate crisis on its hands that makes Americans less confident in their political decisions. It’s not a good moment to launch big projects. But the fact is, we’re already seeing a transition by the mere fact that gasoline is so expensive, and (cheap and plentiful) natural gas is on the rise.

CK: Yet resistance is still huge…

FRUM: Right now we’re in a very serious economic depression, and there are very important donors in the Republican Party who make their money in legacy industries and are used to doing things in a certain way. They don’t see why things need to change and they don’t believe that change can be good for them. Plus, the voting base is drawn from very hard-pressed and economically disappointed retirees whose stock market portfolios and houses are worth less. These are very real fears that can paralyze politics. What I’d like people to remember is that the Republican Party has been as active in the environmental movement as the Democratic Party.

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