The Last Word with CLOSUP director Barry Rabe on carbon pricing, frackademics, and more

May 1, 2015

Republicans support a carbon tax? Yes they do. Barry Rabe, director of the Ford School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, explains.

Photo of Barry Rabe S&H: You'll spend your sabbatical year working on a book about carbon pricing. Why that topic?

Barry Rabe: There’s a long-standing consensus among economists that if you’re going to go after carbon emissions, the most appropriate way is to put a price on them. But politically, that’s probably the hardest thing to do, as the cost is so visible. Instead, in the U.S. and many other nations, we use a mix of regulation, voluntary strategies, mandates—all of which have costs that are kind of hidden. So I’m intrigued by the question of what happens when governments adopt carbon pricing strategies. Do they really deliver as promised?

S&H: What have the results from your national surveys revealed about public support for carbon pricing?

Rabe: In general, it tends to be the least popular policy option among both Americans and Canadians. People usually say “no” by margins of two or three to one. Republicans vehemently oppose it, but routinely a majority of Democrats oppose it as well.

S&H: But your most recent survey found that a majority of Republicans support a carbon tax?

Rabe: It seems to depend heavily on how the revenue from such a tax is used. For example, offering the option of reducing the deficit doesn’t really move the needle of public opinion. In fact, more Democrats were opposed to a carbon tax if they knew the money was going to be used for deficit reduction. But when we added the option of a tax swap, support really started to go up, particularly among Republicans. The numbers rose even higher when we proposed taking that tax money and putting it into alternative energy.

S&H: Were you surprised by the findings?

Rabe: We were surprised by the substantial shift in response based on revenue uses. But this does square with those cases—in North America and around the world—where carbon pricing has been adopted and proven durable. There is a clear and popular use of revenue and not just a focus on the cost in those instances, which actually builds political support over time.

S&H: What are the prospects for this going forward?

Rabe: The new federal Clean Power Plan is designed to give every state an emissions reduction target through 2030 but allow each state to decide how to get there. A surprising number of states have begun to revisit the option of carbon pricing.

S&H: Why should we believe your findings?

Rabe: Our survey partner, Muhlenberg College, earned Nate Silver’s top rating among academically-based survey research units. We’re going back into the field soon to revisit this, with some added revenue use options and experimental components. And we’re trying to be as transparent as possible in this work, so others can work with our data and see what they produce. Also, we’re trying to take the lead in defining financial disclosure provisions.

S&H: Why disclose your funding sources?

Rabe: The question about funding and agendas has become a huge point of contention in the energy and environment arena. In the area of shale gas and oil, there’s a new term, “frackademic,” that’s applied to individual academics or centers that are very closely linked to their funding sources and producing data that will please the sponsor. Climate change is not that different, with a number of contentious debates about whether the research is designed to produce an outcome that’s appealing to a funding source. Disclosure seems to be an obvious first step, as I have been arguing for some time.

When I’ve published in healthcare or public health journals, often there are detailed financial disclosure provisions. When I publish in energy, environmental protection, and climate journals I am almost never asked for that kind of disclosure. That concerns me.

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2015 State & Hill here.