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Bob Corker's Making Sense (no, Seriously.)

I have to admit, one of the more compelling voices on climate policy these days is Bob Corker, the junior Republican senator from Tennessee. Corker, recall, scooped up plenty of press coverage last fall thanks to his maniacal opposition to the Detroit auto bailout. (Paul Krugman slammed him as the "Senator from Nissan"—and, yes, a collapse of GM and Chrysler probably would've benefited some of the foreign car factories in Corker's home state.) But Corker doesn't go in for the traditional right-wing knuckle-dragging on climate change. When asked about the issue last year, he just shrugged and said, "I choose not to debate with scientists."

And then today, at Al Gore's hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker sounded more like a Greenpeace activist than anything else. He told Gore that his ideal emissions policy would be a carbon tax whose revenues were either returned directly to taxpayers or used to reduce the payroll tax—a measure, Corker explained, that would be "transparent" and wouldn't burden taxpayers. That's something Gore himself has backed. Now, over at Grist, Dave Roberts has lashed out against conservatives backing a carbon tax, arguing that cap-and-trade is the only viable climate legislation in Congress, and anyone supporting a carbon tax is just being disingenuous and trying to forestall action. Maybe that's the case here. But I'm not quite convinced.

I say that because Corker then insisted that he'd be amenable to a cap-and-trade regime in which 100 percent of the pollution permits were auctioned off, rather than given away to companies for free. After all, those permits would be valuable commodities, and simply forking them over to emitters for free* would entail "a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to companies." He's right about that. As Peter Orszag has observed, a cap will raise fossil-fuel prices the same amount whether the government auctions off permits or doles them out to polluters for free, so why not do an auction and rebate the funds to consumers? Corker then went on to criticize the use of those ever-shady carbon offsets in any cap-and-trade scheme, arguing that many offsets fund projects that would've happened anyway—and no emissions actually get cut.

Those are all sharp points, and Gore largely agreed with him. (So do I.) Gore quibbled that a small portion of the revenues raised by a cap-and-auction should be spent on adapting to changes already occurring, as well as on research into new energy technologies, but that the vast bulk of revenue should be rebated to Americans. By the way, Gore also answered Corker's follow-up question about nuclear power by noting—quite rightly, I'd say—that while nukes should be an option, construction costs are wildly uncertain right now, and investors are wary of plunking down money for large new plants. Not sure Corker loved that answer, but the two Tennesseans kept their exchange quite cordial.

Again, it's possible Corker's playing some treacherous game here where he nominally supports cap-and-trade now but ends up screaming about any final legislation because it's not "pure" enough for him. I can't read minds. But Corker's stance strikes me as a fruitful conservative position—certainly more conservative than James Inhofe's willingness to experiment with large-scale changes in atmospheric chemistry. If we are going to rely on cap-and-trade to curb carbon-dioxide, then conservatives should, in theory, be demanding it be as simple and market-friendly as possible, without distortionary handouts for companies or devious offsets. Some liberals, like me, will counter that a price on carbon won't be enough, that we'll need additional regulations (for efficiency, especially) to meet our targets. There's ample room for sparring. But that debate would sure beat pointless bickering over whether the greenhouse effect is "real" or not.


* Sorry, my description of the USCAP proposal was slightly awry. Tony Kreindler of Environmental Defense Fund writes in: "USCAP doesn't call for the distribution of allowances to businesses. Instead it calls for some allowance value to go to local distribution companies with the goal of offsetting costs to consumers, and a much smaller slice of the allowance value to some emitters on a temporary basis." (Corker has, however, explicitly criticized this aspect of the USCAP proposal.)

--Bradford Plumer