The latest in global-warming denialism.
Republicans are no longer denying the scientific basis for global warming. That's good news for those of us who have grown accustomed to the continued existence of things like polar sea ice, various forms of life, and Miami. The bad news is that Republicans, having seen the light, have fallen back on the possibly even more annoying stance of simply refusing to do anything about the problem.
The new conservative stance was presaged last summer in a National Review cover story, "Game Plan: What Conservatives Should Do About Global Warming." The article, by Jim Manzi, began with a frank acknowledgement that global warming could no longer be denied. After this promising start, the argument swiftly degenerated. Manzi proposed "development of tactical technologies, such as carbon sequestration and cleaner-burning [oil-fueled] engines." Of course, everybody is for those things. The problem is that dirty energy sources like oil and coal are far cheaper--and will remain cheaper for a long time--unless the government somehow increases the cost of carbon emissions. This, however, is where Manzi begs to differ. "Conservatives," he writes, "should propose policies that are appropriately optimistic, science-based, and low-cost."
How, exactly, conservatives can persuade people to give up cheap energy sources without imposing a cost on them Manzi does not say. (Perhaps this is where being "optimistic" comes in.) Instead, he proceeds to a gleeful discussion of how conservatives could win votes by opposing carbon taxes--most likely by luring "old-line industrial-union members" ticked off by the soulful entreaties of Al Gore and other members of the "Hollywood and political smart set." The essay concludes on the triumphal note, "Global warming can be the first wedge issue of the 21st century."
This charming strategy can already be seen in action in Congress. Democrats, along with some Republican moderates, have proposed a package of renewable energy subsidies. To pay for it, they want to repeal a tax break for oil companies worth $1.3 billion a year. Senate Republicans have successfully filibustered the bill. What's notable here is that the Republicans are not objecting to the end of reducing carbon emissions. Instead, they're objecting to the means.
Objection number one is that repealing the tax break to pay for renewable energy amounts to "taxing successful energy sources and subsidizing unsuccessful ones," as the Heritage Foundation puts it. This description was intended as a devastating insult, but of course it's the whole point. If renewable energy were "successful" in the pure free market, then it wouldn't need to be subsidized. "Successful" energy sources emit lots of carbon dioxide at no cost to the consumer. If you want to reduce carbon emissions, you need to find some way to factor carbon emissions into the price of energy. In its issue brief, Heritage does not question the goal of reducing carbon emissions, but neither does it say how carbon emissions could be reduced without making dirty fuel more expensive.
Objection number two is that reducing tax breaks for oil companies will cause gasoline prices to rise. Actually, the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee disputes this. But, even if it were true, and the entire cost of reducing the tax break was passed on to consumers, it would result in a mere one-cent hike at the pump, which is often smaller than the difference in price between two gas stations across the street from each other. If you're not willing to inflict a one-cent hike at the pump, you're not willing to endure any sacrifice whatsoever to reduce global warming.
The true objection--objection number three, if you're counting--seems to be that removing an oil tax cut will hurt the oil companies' profits. (Which, of course, explains why the oil companies are running an extensive advertising campaign to stop the repeal, itself an odd use of their shareholder wealth given that they would probably simply pass the fee on to consumers at no cost to their bottom line.) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce complains that the repeal "singles out the oil and gas industry for punitive tax treatment." The White House has threatened a veto on the grounds that it would "target tax increases on a specific industry."
What makes this objection particularly comic is that the House isn't proposing some new tax hikes for oil companies. It's only proposing to get rid of a special tax break. A few years ago, the World Trade Organization ruled that an American tax break for exporters amounted to an illegal subsidy. So Congress, then run by Republicans, had to get rid of it. But they decided that, if they had to repeal a tax break for business, they would replace it with another tax break for business. So it was decided they'd create a tax break for manufacturers, on the grounds that manufacturers were struggling.
What, you ask, does this have to do with oil companies? Well, while Congress was doling out the goodies, lots of businesses decided that they wanted tax breaks, too. So, responding to the business lobby's heartfelt campaign dona-- I mean, pleas, Congress generously expanded the definition of "manufacturing." Like the dictator in Bananas who announced that, henceforth, "All children under sixteen years old are now sixteen years old," Congress decreed that sundry pursuits as filmmaking, architecture, and, of course, oil drilling would henceforth be deemed "manufacturing" for tax purposes.
At the time this tax-cutting orgy was happening, nobody except the direct beneficiaries defended it. Liberal, moderate, and even conservative editorialists disdained the corporate pork-fest. Even some lobbyists themselves felt a little queasy. (One K-Streeter confessed to The Washington Post that the giveaways represented "a new level of sleaze.")
If you want to know how little sacrifice most Republicans are willing to endure to make a dent in global warming, here is your answer. They're not even willing to take back a special interest subsidy--worth $1.3 billion per year, roughly 1 percent of the industry's annual profit--that nobody was willing to defend when it was enacted.
The House plan is not a solution for global warming. It's a very modest first step. On his website, John McCain boldly announces, "I believe climate change is real, I think it's devastating, I think we have to act." Great! Except that McCain has also said he supports the Republican filibuster. Welcome to the new kind of global-warming denial.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.