When Al Gore came to Idaho to talk about climate change in 2007, I interviewed then Republican Sen. Larry Craig to ask him his views on the controversial topic.
Craig, long a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had examined the issue closely since the early 1990s when the Kyoto Agreement was signed requiring western countries to cut carbon. Unlike many of his GOP colleagues at the time Craig was not willing to dismiss climate change outright.
He was skeptical it was as serious the world scientific community said it was, but acknowledged that something was going on. What he was not for was unilateral action by the United States to handcuff its economy by a complicated cap and trade regime to reduce carbon.
What he mostly rejected was Gore’s moral argument. Gore said at the time if you believed that the burning of fossil fuels by human society was causing rapid climate change that could have catastrophic effects on future generations, you had a moral responsibility to act.
Craig could dismiss this moral argument because he said he was not convinced our actions were causing the changes. Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson have taken largely the same position. The political stance also allowed the Idaho Republicans to advocate for nuclear power and even incentives for alternative energy to promote energy independence and to address the high levels of carbon in the atmosphere that cannot be denied.
Idaho Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador signed a pledge during his campaign to oppose any climate change legislation that resulted in an increase in revenue. But I haven't talked to him about his views on the science.
The moral argument remains out there for all policymakers who honestly address the issue. If one believes that humans are a major cause of the rapid changes taking place in the life-support system on which their children and grandchildren depend, and that they can do something about it, then it follows they have a moral imperative.
That’s been the thinking of people like Tri Robinson, pastor of the Boise Vineyard Church, and other leaders of the creation care movement. It was how GOP activist Dennis Mansfield reacted to Gore’s 2007 speech .
These religious voices come from the conservative side of the political debate, driven not by science but by values.
Republicans in Congress, many of whom had embraced the cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon as late as 2009, eventually rejected it when forced through the House by Democrats. Now, however, Republicans are reportedly considering including a carbon tax in a comprehensive tax reform package.
A carbon tax is the kind of tax that free-market conservatives can embrace. It hits consumption — not savings or investments. It specifically addresses the market failure that climate change represents instead of distorting the market the way incentives do.
It’s also easy to collect. And, if used right, it can efficiently help in other ways.
On Idaho’s northern border, our neighbors in British Columbia just raised their carbon tax on fossil fuels from $25 to $30 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. Because of the proceeds from the carbon tax, BC has been able to reduce its corporate income tax rate from 12 percent to 10 percent.
Rebates for low-income and rural residents, put in place in part to offset the impacts of the carbon tax, now make personal income taxes in BC for people making less than $119,000 the lowest in Canada. Supporters say states like Idaho that don’t have significant oil and coal reserves, but have great potential to produce biofuels, wind, geothermal and solar power, could benefit even more.
Those arguments pale next to the moral question that Craig bitterly dismissed in 2007. Simply reducing carbon to address the possibility it might have some impact on future climatic conditions is not the kind of policy initiative that triggers a major shift.
Still, by leaving the door open that the world’s scientific community might be right, Idaho’s Republican delegation has kept its options open. Their position reflects polls of Idahoans, which have shown that the state's people take a similar position.