Bob Inglis is a rare breed – a U.S. Republican who takes seriously the risk of catastrophic climate change and proposes a carbon tax as the most "conservative" way to address it.
The former South Carolina congressman lost a nomination battle in 2010 after acknowledging the threat of climate change. He is now stumping the U.S., preaching the merits of the carbon tax to young Republicans.
This week, he'll bring his message to Ottawa as part of an effort by a progressive think tank, Canada 2020, to promote non-partisan debate on carbon pricing.
In an interview this week, Mr. Inglis said that, for the United States, a carbon tax is preferable to either regulations aimed at reducing emissions, or a cap-and-trade system.
"We think America is stuck in a conversation that was started from the left and it involves capping and trading and an expansion of the government and an increase in the regulatory burden," he said.
"We want to change that conversation, and move it to a free enterprise alternative the goal of which is a true-cost comparison between competing fuels."
For the Harper government, any discussion of an economy-wide carbon tax is a non-starter. But Canada 2020 research director Diana Carney says the country needs to re-start the debate on climate change, and eliminate the poisonous partisanship that has made it a wedge issue in national politics.
The Conservatives aggressively attack any proposal that has a whiff of "carbon tax," though their own regulatory approach indirectly imposes a price on carbon.
Prior to 2009, the Tories had planned to impose a system that would cap industrial emissions and allow trade of credits, but they jettisoned that plan when a similar measure in the U.S. was defeated in Congress.
Instead, following the lead of the Obama administration, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has opted for sector-by-sector regulations, though his government is slow in implementing that plan.
The New Democratic Party has endorsed a cap-and-trade plan that would raise significant revenue for government, while the Liberals have yet to propose a solution.
Mr. Inglis said he doesn't presume to offer policy advice to Canada.
For the U.S., he advocates the elimination of all subsidies – whether direct support for renewable energy or tax incentive for oil and gas production. At the same time, government would assess the environmental costs of competing fuels and add a levy at the point of production.
Such a pricing mechanism would drive innovation and substitution of cleaner energy sources for dirty, more expensive sources. But he conceded there would be a major role for government in determining "the true cost of carbon." Mr. Inglis hasn't targeted a specific price, but is talking about a range of $15 to $30 a tonne then increasing it.
His plan is similar to the one adopted by British Columbia's Liberal government and, like that B.C. plan, would designed to be revenue neutral, with tax cuts elsewhere offsetting the burden from a carbon levy.
The mainstream of the Republican Party is openly skeptical of the science and hostile to any effort to address it.
The South Carolina politician – who now runs the Energy & Enterprise Institute – acknowledges he has a tough sell with his former congressional colleagues and Republicans generally.
But he said there is a scientific consensus that a warming climate will play havoc with weather patterns, and it would be foolhardy to let ideology trump science.
"We shouldn't be proceeding in the face of risk without taking that risk into account," he said.
"If the science tells us there is a risk, why would we want to dispute the science? Eventually, your shaky ideology will be overcome by the science and by the observation of the data."