Selectively pro-U.S. leadership.

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Rubio Believes in U.S. Leadership. Just Not on Climate.

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who seems to have a genuine chance of becoming his party's presidential nominee, said this week that carbon taxes "will do nothing" to alter the advance of climate change. According to Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, Rubio continued:

By the admission of the advocates, they would do nothing to change our environment. You can ask them, how many feet of sea rise will this prevent if we pass this bill, and their answer is, it won’t prevent anything.

If you're telling presidential candidates that a carbon tax would accomplish nothing, then you probably don't qualify as an advocate for a carbon tax. The proper word for that is "opponent."

QuickTake The Cost of Carbon

More interesting is why a free-market champion such as Rubio would believe these unnamed naysayers. Does Rubio not agree that when government taxes something, society produces less of it? When he says a carbon tax would do "nothing," what exactly does he mean?

Most proposals for a U.S. carbon tax follow a basic logic: The federal government levies a fee on every ton of carbon emitted, thereby increasing the price of fossil fuels. The higher price drives down demand for those fuels, which in turn reduces total emissions. In addition, to prevent economic activity from leaving for countries that don't price carbon, the U.S. would levy a corresponding import duty on goods from those countries.

You can oppose that idea on political grounds. Or you can oppose it on policy grounds, preferring another approach or no approach at all. But the notion that taxing carbon would have no impact on the production of carbon emissions is hard to justify.

The evidence certainly doesn't support it. In European nations that adopted carbon taxes, emissions fell, either compared to a baseline or in absolute terms, after carbon taxes were instituted. Meanwhile, instead of killing economic activity, economic output in those nations, including Sweden and the Netherlands, increased. Governments that promised to offset the new tax through tax cuts elsewhere, such as the U.K. and the Canadian province of British Columbia, typically kept those promises.

Maybe Rubio is arguing that a carbon tax would cut emissions, but doing so wouldn't have any impact on the environment. But Rubio isn't quite a denier of climate change. Instead, as my colleague Paula Dwyer has written, he seems to believe that climate change is real and that humans play some role in contributing to it.

The best way to make sense of Rubio's position is that U.S. action alone won't work. He said last month that the U.S. is unable to induce other nations to reduce their emissions, and so any American effort would be futile, producing little global impact on carbon while harming the U.S. economy.

For a conservative champion of a muscular foreign policy, that's almost as bizarre as denying that taxation reduces the demand for goods and services. Rubio's campaign explicitly promises to restore American influence abroad. "The question before us is not should we lead," Rubio told the Council on Foreign Relations in March, "but rather, how should we lead in this new century."

So Rubio's position on a carbon tax isn't just in conflict with economic evidence. It's also in conflict with a core principle of his candidacy: that U.S. leadership is a powerful tool for shaping the world, and that Rubio knows how to wield it. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net