One Republican’s carbon-tax campaign faces an uphill battle
Former congressman Bob Inglis’ effort to persuade his fellow Republicans to back a carbon tax is part of a struggle within the party over how — if at all — to address carbon emissions and global warming.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Support for this project
This series was supported by a Perry and Alicia O’Brien Fellowship at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. The fellowship enabled Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton to spend the academic year at Marquette reporting on this project and working with students from the Diederich College of Communications.
MILWAUKEE — Kevin Croswhite once appeared to have a promising future in Wisconsin Republican politics.
At 22, his résumé included work on several political campaigns and as a party field director during the 2012 presidential election.
Then last year, Croswhite made a perilous career move.
He went to work for the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which proposes a carbon tax as a Republican prescription for combating climate change driven by the combustion of fossil fuels.
Since then, he has been tarred by some state Republican activists as a fake conservative for advocating a carbon tax. And, earlier this year, the Wisconsin Federation of Young Republicans, a statewide college group, pulled out of sponsoring the Energy and Enterprise group on campuses.
This Wisconsin Republican scrum over climate change is part of a struggle within the party over how — if at all — to address carbon emissions and global warming. Many prominent Republicans are skeptical of the science, and climate-change legislation in recent years has made no headway in Congress.
Croswhite is convinced young Republicans are more open to the science of climate change, and some poll data support that belief.
In three years of polling, Gallup found that only a quarter of Republicans under 30 categorized themselves as climate skeptics, compared with between 41 and 49 percent of Republicans in older age groups. Croswhite is hopeful that his peers, as they age and gain clout in the party, will press for action on carbon emissions.
“We have the power here. We just need to stand up and take it,” Croswhite said.
But Croswhite faces an uphill struggle to rally Republicans around a carbon tax. In a poll earlier this year by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College, less than 45 percent of Republicans indicated support for such a tax even if all the revenue was returned through rebate checks.
Some Republicans say climate change is just a hard issue to stir much passion within the party.
“The people on the political left have worked very hard to associate this with an agenda of the things they want to do, and that — more than anything else — has made the issue toxic,” said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Climate change once was shunned by Bob Inglis, Croswhite’s boss at the Energy and Enterprise Initiative. As a Republican congressman from South Carolina, Inglis dismissed climate science as “a bunch of nonsense.”
Inglis changed his views in 2004. That election year, his son said he would vote for him but he should “clean up his act on the environment,” and the rest of his family agreed.
Inglis studied the science, concluding that climate change was a serious threat and that the proper Republican response was a carbon tax. That position was a political liability in 2010, when he was defeated in the GOP primary.
“My most enduring heresy was to say climate change is real — let’s do something about it,” Inglis said.
Once out of office, Inglis, buoyed by grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund and other foundations, set up the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, based at George Mason University in Virginia. The organization advocates a carbon tax that would be accompanied by cuts in other taxes. Inglis hopes a revenue-neutral tax would usher in a new energy policy that would cut subsidies for renewable and fossil fuels and also end EPA regulation of carbon emissions.
The concept has some support in corporate America. The leaders of Exxon Mobil, which for years directed funding to groups that questioned climate change, now say they believe in climate science and endorse a revenue-neutral carbon tax as the best approach to reducing emissions. “It’s the ultimate risk management issue facing us today,” Ken Cohen, an Exxon Mobil vice president, said in a conference appearance in October 2013.
Croswhite was an early Inglis recruit in Wisconsin, helping arrange the former congressman’s visits to state college campuses and hiring on as the initiative’s state director.
Inglis tapped Wisconsin as one of the first states where he would try to rally conservative support for a carbon tax, hoping this would spur the state’s Republican leaders to address climate change.
All this activity stirred a backlash from Republicans opposed to the tax, who showed up at some of Inglis’ talks to challenge his views and took to social media and the air waves to attack Croswhite. Republican radio talk-show host Vicki McKenna lambasted Inglis, saying he was promoting a left-wing agenda, and accused his recruits of selling their souls for pizza and barely minimum-wage jobs. “They are young and they are dumb,” she declared on a show earlier this year.
And as the fall election season heats up, Republicans in Wisconsin are not rallying around the carbon tax.
Croswhite, though, remains convinced that time is on his side.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org Marquette University students Evan Peterson, Melanie Lawder and Erin Heffernan contributed to his story.
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 3, 2014 was corrected Oct. 6, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the wife and five children of Bob Inglis would not vote for him unless he cleaned up his act on the environment. Actually, his son said he would vote for Inglis but wanted his father to clean up his act on the environment, and the rest of the family agreed.