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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Not all conservatives have their heads in the oil sands Add to ...

If ever there were an establishment Republican, George Shultz would be the man.

After receiving his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and teaching economics there for some years, he became U.S. secretary of labour, director of the Office of Management and Budget, secretary of the treasury and president Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state from 1982 to 1989. Since then, Mr. Shultz has been at Stanford, hardly a hotbed of radicalism, while serving on various boards of large corporations.

Mr. Shultz will turn 94 next month, but his interest in public issues persists. His latest interest is climate change. He’s bought an electric car, placed solar panels on his house and has been telling those in his party and beyond: “The climate is changing. If you don’t like the science, use your eyes.”

What to do? Mr. Shultz favours two approaches. First, increased government funding on clean technology research. Second, a revenue-neutral carbon tax, of the kind British Columbia implemented in 2008.

Imagine that from a pillar of Republicanism – a plea for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Most Republican politicians run from the issue of climate change, their latest dodge being that they are not scientists and therefore cannot have an opinion on the science.

Heads in the ground, they dismiss last week’s fifth report of the International Panel on Climate Change, which reported with more urgency and certainty than ever that the Earth is warming due to man-made emissions, principally from the burning of fossil fuels. The consequences for humanity will be grave, said the IPCC.

In that assessment, the panel agrees with Mr. Shultz, who has said that his two preferred policy choices – research and a carbon tax – will be far less costly than the long-term expense of dealing with climate change.

Six weeks ago, 73 countries, 22 subnational jurisdictions and more than 1,000 companies and investors signed one of four documents: the Put a Price on Carbon Statement, the Carbon Price Communiqué, the Caring for Climate Initiative and the 2014 Global Investor Statement on Climate Change.

The latter statement, whose 347 institutional investors include such leftist hotbeds as Rockefeller Asset Management, BlackRock and Paribas Investment Partners, called for governments to “provide stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon pricing that helps redirect investment commensurate with the scale of the climate-change challenge.”

In Canada this week, a group of economists from across the discipline, under the direction of a board of directors ranging from former Reform Party leader Preston Manning to former B.C. NDP premier Mike Harcourt, launched a “commission” to produce research and public papers on carbon pricing over the next five years.

The board and economists hope – hopefully not against hope – to influence public debate, which shut down after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives destroyed the Liberals under Stéphane Dion, who had proposed a carbon tax.

Mr. Dion’s idea, alas, included using revenue from such a tax for social programs. The much wiser approach, favoured by everyone from Mr. Shultz to the international supporters to the B.C. government, is to return all funds from the carbon tax to individuals and businesses in the form of lower taxes.

The Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have both gingerly suggested carbon pricing, without saying how or when.

CAPP is always a lowest-common-denominator organization with so many different members. Some, such as Esso, have parent companies (Exxon Mobil) that have publicly supported a price on carbon, while others fiercely oppose one. Inside the industry, huge multinationals such as Exxon Mobil and Shell are already factoring a carbon price of $40 to $60 a tonne into their long-term planning.

Canada’s Conservatives, who are supposed to like free-market solutions and use tax policy to influence behaviour, prefer to deal with carbon through what they otherwise decry, regulation. Of course, the Conservatives have never produced any regulation on the oil-and-gas industry, and their regulations on coal are long-term and rather lame.

Some day, the Conservatives will be gone from office, at which time a more serious national debate will begin about dealing with the long-term cost of carbon emissions by taxing them, and returning the money in the form of lower taxes on individuals and businesses.

With Mr. Shultz and Mr. Manning in favour, at least there are a couple of conservatives who don’t have their heads in the sand.

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