Think of this as a negotiation point. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
Think of this as a negotiation point. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Across the street from the Washington Convention Center, through a narrow door tucked between a bar and what used to be a furniture rental store, up two flights of rickety stairs, Eli Lehrer is sitting in his small, sparsely decorated office, drinking a Diet Coke and explaining how to sell the Republican Party on a carbon tax. After listening to him for an hour, I start to think it might work.

Lehrer is an odd candidate for the job of saving the planet, not least because he doesn't seem that enthusiastic about it. Where liberals talk about climate policy in near-messianic terms of protecting future generations, Lehrer calls climate change real but relatively unimportant, blames Democrats for making it part of the culture war and points out that carbon dioxide is "not intrinsically harmful to human health."

Carbon Markets

In other words, Lehrer, a 38-year-old Chicagoan who runs a think tank called the R Street Institute, seems as if he could talk climate change with most Republicans without tripping any alarms. His bona fides are good: He was a speech writer for Republican Bill Frist when he was Senate majority leader and was later vice president of the libertarian think tank the Heartland Institute, until he quit over a billboard that made questionable reference to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

Where Lehrer parts with the party's mainstream is his view that a carbon tax is a good way to wring concessions from Democrats. If the country is able to reduce its carbon emissions along the way, well, there's no harm in that.

His institute, whose funders include State Farm, the Walton Foundation and Google Inc., says its mission is to "promote free markets and limited, effective government." It's a tagline that fits nicely in the case of a carbon tax, which Lehrer calls the least-bad way to regulate emissions -- and one that allows other taxes to be cut in the meantime. The trick is persuading other Republicans to see it that way.

It's hard to overstate the enormity of that task. Only one in four Republican voters thinks human activity is making the earth warmer; among those the Pew Research Center calls "steadfast conservatives," that number falls to 9 percent. Even same-sex marriage doesn't poll that badly.

Meanwhile, 80 percent of Republicans tell pollsters they oppose a carbon tax; if that tax were to increase energy costs by a hypothetical 10 percent, opposition rises to 87 percent. And even those who don’t hate the idea aren't clamoring for it either. When the Gallup Organization asked this month what is the most important problem facing the U.S., less than 3 percent of respondents said climate change.

So Lehrer argues that it's too much to expect Republicans to come out with their own proposals on stemming carbon emissions. (Even Lehrer has occasionally been reluctant about trumpeting a carbon tax too loudly; writing for National Review in July, he offered a conservative agenda on global warming that didn't even mention the phrase.) Instead, he says the strategy should be getting the party to a point where some Republicans could support for a Democratic initiative. With conditions.

If Democrats were to propose a carbon tax, according to Lehrer, Republican lawmakers could eventually be persuaded to accept it on something like the following terms: The revenue would be used to cut other taxes, including the corporate income tax and payroll taxes; the Environmental Protection Agency's rules on carbon emissions would be rescinded; and the federal and state governments would open up more land to drilling for natural gas.

Even then, Lehrer predicts, a majority of Republicans in Congress would still refuse to support a carbon tax. Instead, the goal would be for enough Republicans to support it that a bill could pass with Democratic support.

Lehrer describes a four-step campaign to nudge the party in that direction. The first is building consensus among prominent conservative intellectuals, or at least benign indifference. Next is convincing what Lehrer calls the "grass-tops" -- county chairmen, high-profile local activists -- that climate change is real, it's a problem, and solving it doesn't have to mean surrendering to a liberal agenda.

The third step is convincing the grass-roots -- not necessarily Tea Party groups, but campus Republicans, faith groups, small business owners, members of gun clubs and the like. That gets you to the final step, which is giving Republican lawmakers "permission" to take the deal by rendering it nontoxic. Or even just a little less toxic.

When I ask Lehrer what stage the campaign is at, he says the push to convince the party's elite is "reasonably far along," citing support from the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Weekly Standard and others. He says there's been "some progress" on the grass-tops, but doesn't know about the grass-roots. As for lawmakers, the other steps need to happen first.

Lehrer concedes all of this will take time. He doubts Republicans will shift before the 2016 elections, and says a lot depends on the next president. In the meantime, his advice for Democrats is to stop using climate change as a stick to beat up Republicans and "be willing to wait."

It's easy to come up with reasons that the strategy will probably fail. The Tea Party would have to get far weaker before many Republican officeholders risk acknowledging climate change, let alone creating a new tax. Democrats are unlikely to stop pointing out Republican intransigence on climate change, and many would balk at the conditions Lehrer describes. And after the Democrats' 2009 cap-and-trade proposal fell apart, it's unclear how much they'll want to try again.

But if Lehrer's strategy seems like a stretch, it's hard to think of an alternative that doesn’t. Unless Democrats are able to sweep both houses of Congress again, they're going to need Republican support for a carbon tax. Rallying the business community behind the idea might have been a viable plan at one point, but even if you could, the debate over the Export-Import Bank suggests that the Chamber of Commerce doesn't have the heft with Republicans that it used to.

So barring some calamitous acceleration in the visible consequences of climate change, getting even a slice of Republican lawmaker support is going to require something like the slow, outside-in process that Lehrer talks about. And it's going to require offering something to people who couldn't care less about rising sea levels, but who know that others do and are interested in taking advantage of that.

In other words, getting a carbon tax passed is going to require what any other big policy requires: a cultural shift and a deal. Given enough time, Lehrer and others like him may be able to pull that off. Just don’t tell him he's saving the planet, because that's not really his thing.

To contact the writer of this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net.