In this episode, I interviewed Alex Flint, the Executive Director of The Alliance for Market Solutions.
Alex joined AMS as executive director in May 2017. He previously served as staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, and as a member of President Trump’s transition team.
The Alliance for Market Solutions (AMS) is an organization of conservative leaders addressing two of America’s most pressing challenges: the need to reduce carbon pollution and grow the economy.
AMS respect’s climate change science and supports replacing regulations with a revenue-neutral carbon tax—a policy that would efficiently protect the environment and deregulate and grow the economy.
AMS engages directly with influential conservatives, including policymakers, to cultivate support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. We also conduct research on key aspects of carbon tax policies to provide policymakers insights into issues including the impact of a revenue-neutral carbon tax on economic growth, income, and innovation.
In this episode, Alex and I discuss:
Alex’s background and childhood that led to his awareness and appreciation for the environment
The early days of The Alliance for Market Solutions and how it came to be
Alex’s time working in nuclear and then on Trump’s transition team
Alex’s case for why and how conservatives should address the issue of climate change
The specific solution that AMS proposes to address climate change
Why Alex does not think any solution is better than no solution when it comes to climate policy
I hope you enjoy the show!
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and provide suggestions for future guests or topics you'd like to see covered on the show.
Links for topics discussed in this episode:
Alex Flint: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alex-flint-0a294574/
The Alliance for Market Solutions: https://amsresearch.org/
Alex’s Op Ed from Dec of 2018: https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/energy-environment/419392-republicans-are-losing-on-climate-issues-we-can-change
Article on the email Alex wrote about climate change deniers: https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060162805
Interview of Alex - Addressing Climate Change with a Carbon Tax | White House Chronicle: https://vimeo.com/278688768
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs. Welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help. Hey, everyone, Jason here. Today's guest is Alex Flint, executive director for the Alliance for Market Solutions. Alex is an interesting one because he is a Republican running an organization that is funded by Republican billionaires that believes in science and is pushing forward a climate agenda that reflects conservative ideals. In a time historically when maybe Republicans have resisted any climate policy, Alex has been out there on the front lines driving hard to push climate policy forward on the right side of the aisle. This was my first interview on the policy side, and it is different. We didn't always agree in this discussion, but that's okay. I thought Alex was a really gracious guest, super smart, and I'm glad he's doing the work that he's doing. Without further adieu, here's Alex. Welcome to the show.
Alex Flint: Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Thank you for having me as well. I think it's pretty humorous how we initially came together. I found this right side of the aisle, is it advocacy firm? Is that how you describe what you guys do?
Alex Flint: It's a nonprofit 501(c)(3). It's educational, for the most part.
Jason Jacobs: That was working on the right side of the aisle on climate change agenda that reflects conservative ideals, and I reached out cold to you. Not only did you make the time when I came to D.C., but after a phone call to make sure that I wasn't going to reflect poorly on you, you actually introduced me around town and filled up my schedule.
Alex Flint: Jason, in the early days in particular as a conservative working on climate change, I'd take a meeting with anybody. It's come a long way just in the two years we've been doing this, but particularly at the beginning, and I don't mean to make light of it, we formed this group a little over two years ago, a group of Republicans who respect science who thought, "We need to take science serious," that denialism is not longer appropriate came together, formed this effort and went about talking with Republican policy makers. As we called it, it's a conversation among Republicans about okay, if we acknowledge climate change what do you we do about it? What's the conservative policy response to this real challenge that we're facing?
Alex Flint: Early on and when you and I met for the first time, we were ramping up those conversations, but we were still, it was last year. Most Republicans, here weren't a lot of hearings on climate change and other things like that going on. We were delighted to meet with anybody who wanted to. Now it's different, now this conversation.
Jason Jacobs: Glad I reached out then.
Alex Flint: You and I still would have gotten together, but the point is it has changed so much in the last six months. Today Republican orthodoxy has changed or is changing depending upon how you want to evaluate it, but it is no longer denialism when it comes to climate. Today most Republicans acknowledge climate change publicly, and we're trying to figure out what the conservative Republican response is to climate change. It's a very different conversation than it was when you and I first met.
Jason Jacobs: That is changing now. Historically, that's not always been the case, yet you've chosen to spend your livelihood focused on this area for quite some time. When did that awakening happen for you? Were you born caring about the planet, or was there some specific moment looking back that was a turning point for you?
Alex Flint: No, I was not born caring about the planet, but I was born to a physicist. I grew up in a house where science was important. I'm not a scientist by training myself. I started working in the US Senate in 1989 for Republicans under Pete Domenici from New Mexico who was my mentor for many, many years. He cared about energy issues. I spent a lot of time at Sandia [inaudible 00:04:11] National Laboratories and really got to know a lot of scientists, then people I respect tremendously who were, the way I think about it, is there are some people who disparage scientists, particularly when it comes to climate change, but my view is that many of them are the smartest kids we knew in eighth grade who then went off to the technical high schools. They went on to the really prestigious colleges and have spent their lives working on scientific research, and I have a great deal of respect for them. I have a lot of respect for scientific method, for the debate, for the way consensus is developed, how peer review is not always unanimous, that there is debate within the scientific community, but at the same time, how policy makers have to take that scientific consensus and decide what policies we should implement and what the responsible thing to do is when scientists come to conclusions about what risks we face when we talk about climate change, for example.
Alex Flint: My view of respect for science from when I was very young. Then, as I had various jobs in the Senate, at one point I was on the Senate Appropriations Committee. I was responsible for the budgets of the Department of Energy and some other agencies. As I said, spent a lot of time at the national laboratories and even in the mid-1990s scientists at the laboratories were talking to me about climate change. It wasn't a political issue. It wasn't even an energy issue. It was a scientific phenomena. It was this is what some of the evidence is showing us. Here's how we speculate this may change in the future. Those were my formative conversations about the issue. Over time, as the science has gotten more certain, as the policy discussions got more contentious for a period of time and now, I think, are coming back to being a little bit more constructive, I've always accepted that there's a risk associated with climate change and that the responsible thing to do is to face that risk head on, try to understand it better, quantify what those risks are, and then try to mitigate, reduce the risks associated with climate change. For me, it's really sort of a pursuit of human knowledge and understanding what the appropriate public policy response should be.
Jason Jacobs: Was the issue always as divisive politically as it has been in the last few years?
Alex Flint: No. When I first started participating in these sorts of conversations in the early 1990s, I think both parties were beginning to come to grips with this issue. The party separated. Their definitely has been years when Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on this, when party orthodoxy has been very different on the issue. There's a whole host of reasons. I don't particularly care to go through all those reasons. I think there are substantive reasons. I think there's political reasons, there's a whole host of things. Today though, I think that climate change is becoming evident enough that members of both parties, but Republican in particular since that's what I work on who recognize the issue and are now having serious conversations about what to do about it.
Jason Jacobs: When you left politics you spent a bunch of years working in the nuclear industry.
Alex Flint: Yeah, I did.
Jason Jacobs: What motivated you to choose that problem? Did climate factor into that decision as well?
Alex Flint: The short version of the story, there's probably different variations on this story, but my degree is in foreign affairs. I studied Soviet issues in particular. I was fascinated by the Cold War and was in college studying it as the Cold War came to its conclusion. I was working in the Senate thinking those were interesting issues. I was working with the national laboratories doing the budgets of the nuclear weapons program, and so very interested in the geopolitical issues associated with nuclear weapons. I got involved in an effort, very successful effort to purchase Russian highly enriched uranium from their nuclear weapons blended down into material that could go into US nuclear reactors. In the United States, we radiated, used for energy, the high-enriched uranium for low-enriched uranium, but derived from high-enriched uranium from Russia, 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads. It may be one of the most important things I've ever worked on, but it was a tremendously important program in the mid-1990s through just a few years ago as we consumed all this material, and that began my education about civilian nuclear issues.
Alex Flint: I was interested in climate at the time. I think nuclear has a tremendous potential and is a necessary component of any really serious climate policy, so I sort of went from studying foreign relations, to nuclear weapons, to national security, to nuclear energy issues and morphed very comfortably into working on civilian nuclear issues, and spent a decade doing that at the nuclear energy institute. Left their, worked for the Trump transition team. I was one of the Sherpas who helped get cabinet secretaries confirmed, which is a fascinating story all unto itself. Being the Sherpa, being the person who ...
Jason Jacobs: Is that a formal title in government? I'm not an inside the beltway kind of guy.
Alex Flint: Sherpa in Washington is a person who guides a nominee through the confirmation process, particularly important in the early days of a new administration when, for example, the new president hasn't been sworn in, so there's not a White House legislative affairs team. The cabinet agencies don't have their congressional affairs teams in. You really just have the President's selection to be the cabinet secretary. They get nominated immediately upon the President being sworn in, and then they've got to go through the Senate confirmation process. There are people like me who know the Senate very well, who's worked on other confirmations, who helped guide these people through the confirmation process, everything from scheduling the meetings with all the senators to helping them answer the questions and prep for the confirmation hearings and go through the process. It's something that particularly at the beginning of administrations, people do on a volunteer basis, and then go off and do other interesting things. The interesting thing that came to me was this opportunity to work with this remarkable board of advisors that we've assembled here to change the party orthodoxy on climate, and we've been at it now for two years.
Jason Jacobs: What motivated your decision to move away from nuclear. I ask about because I've been spending the last several months trying to look at what the most impactful levers can be in decarbonization, and policy is certainly one of them, which is why I was so excited to speak with you, but nuclear is another one, and it seems to be heading in the wrong direction. Yeah, I'd love to hear just what motivated that shift and then how you landed on working on what you're doing now.
Alex Flint: An important thing for me is that as I recognized the scale of the challenge, both in the United States and globally, with addressing climate change, I became more committed to ways of creating systemic changes. One of the things that I like about what I'm doing now is I'm not an advocate of any particular low-carbon technology. I'm an advocate of creating a market that incentivizes low-carbon technologies across the economy, and that is my North Star, if you will, which is how do we transform our energy economy in a way that is consistent with long-term good climate policy? We need to significantly reduce annual CO2 pollution. We need to do that in the United States. We need to do it worldwide. The way we do that will involve innovation, new technologies, new behavior, efficiency and really changing things across the economy.
Alex Flint: From a climate perspective, I don't care if those changes, if reductions in carbon pollution occur in the industrial sector or the transportation sector, the utility sector, in efficiency, in the way we manufacture homes, in what the agricultural sector does. What I'm interested in is figuring out a system that creates an incentive economy wide to drive that transformation, and that's why I have come to a carbon tax as the mechanism to, for the first time, value or put a price on emitting carbon pollution into the atmosphere. By doing that, by pricing that, we will drive that transformation across the economy. Where I am is sort of in a post-nuclear phase, which is I think we need nuclear. I think we need wind, and we need solar, and we need efficiency. We need things we don't have today if we're going to address this problem at scale.
Jason Jacobs: Did this organization already exist, or did you already start it up? What was the origin story both for the organization and for your involvement with the organization?
Alex Flint: There were a group of individuals who now are on the board of advisors who had begun talking among themselves who had gotten to know each other. The board of advisors are the retired chief executive officers of companies like Exelon, Shell, United Airlines, State Farm, the American Enterprise Institute, some others who were very successful through their careers and who had gotten to know one another, and who sort of came to this conclusion that something needed to be done. They had the stature and the gravitas to have the initial conversations with Republican policy makers and to force a reconsideration of this issue. They had been talking.
Jason Jacobs: This issue being specific to the carbon tax.
Alex Flint: This issue specifically being where was the Republican Party on climate change? If we're going to engage constructively on climate change, there has to be both that engagement, but there also has to be a policy that goes along with it because these two things are so closely related. If an individual acknowledges that man is changing the climate, certainly to be responsible, one also has to say, and as a result we think we need to do the following to address that issue. These two things move hand in hand, acknowledgement of climate, and then also the ability to speak sensibly to a climate policy response.
Alex Flint: Different ones of my advisors came to this slightly differently. Some were very interested in a carbon tax because of its ability to contribute to addressing climate change. Others were very interested in making sure the Republicans had a bonafide policy on climate change because they see that it's such an emerging important political issue. There's a fair bit of this, which is what's the future of the Republican Party? How are we going to appeal to millenials, in particular, that care about this issue because denialism just isn't working with that cohort. It's a combination of interests. A number of them experienced in working large corporations that were very closely regulated recognized that the regulatory path is an expensive of avoiding carbon pollution and all sorts of unintended consequences and wanted to come up with a better way of addressing this without expanding the regulatory state. Those three things drove these individuals to come together as a group. They'd been thinking, but I was brought on as the first employee. We've expanded since that time. Now we run a pretty decent research education program here in Washington. Last year we met with 82 Republican members of Congress and have been present and in part responsible for this transformation of Republican orthodoxy on climate change.
Jason Jacobs: These advisors, are they also the primary funders of the organization?
Alex Flint: They are in part the funders of the organization. There are other individuals who also fund the organization. We have a very nice cohort of individuals who's made personal commitments to the organization. The board of advisors are in part are our funders, but there are other funders as well, all individuals.
Jason Jacobs: Is it all individuals who are no longer the CEOs of the organizations that they ran, or are some of them still active?
Alex Flint: No, there's all sorts of different things. Some are retired, others now run other enterprises. It's a host of different things. I don't mean to make light of it. It's people who've been very successful and have the ability to decide this is something they care a great deal about and are blessed enough to be able to put some financial backing behind this.
Jason Jacobs: I may be mistaken, but in the research that I've done it seems like there are many groups on the left that have been pushing for some type of price on carbon and frequently the carbon tax as well, so I want to ask because I heard in your origin story that you believe in science and want to take action on science, but want conservative ideals to be reflected, and the carbon taxes is where you ended up. How much overlap is there on the Venn Diagram between the carbon tax that the left has been pushing for and the carbon tax on the right? Is it as cookie cutter as a left and a right, or is there a long tail of all kinds of different proposals that are floating around?
Alex Flint: A little bit of a comment on the left, and then I'll switch and give you some commentary on the right. I think the left, particularly in these days of discussing The Green New Deal, has gone so far to the left with some of these ideas that would expand the state, that are really efforts to use climate to address other social inequity issues. My view is that The Green New Deal has pulled Democrats so far left to be just in a very unreasonable place on climate for many of them, but to our advantage it's opened up the center. It's given Republicans the opportunity to be the responsible party on some of these issues. That's an opportunity that The Green New Deal has provided to Republicans.
Alex Flint: A little bit about sort of the Republican conservative thought on this. I've said in some forms that one of the greatest contributions Republicans can make to addressing climate change is sound economic analysis. Those of us that respect climate science and the scale of the problem have to also focus on the most efficient means of addressing the problem. For example, if we want to achieve some reduction in carbon pollution, let's just take from the utility sector for a moment, we can do that with a portfolio standard. We can do that with a carbon tax. A portfolio standard will cost consumers multiple times what a carbon tax will cost.
Jason Jacobs: For any listener that doesn't know the term, what is a portfolio standard?
Alex Flint: A renewable portfolio standard is one where a state, frequently a public utility commission says, "Electricity generated in this state must be 20% carbon for your 30% carbon-free or must all come from wind, or can be some portion geothermal or whatever it happens to be. They put limits on how the markets provides electricity into the marketplace, for example. It can change the way in which electricity is generated, but it does so at a much higher cost than an efficient carbon tax. For us, the correct response is, all right, we agree we need to change the energy economy. What's the most efficient way to do that? There's no point in overpaying for a clean energy economy. We ought to agree we're going to adopt the mechanism that does so the most efficiently at the lowest cost. That's the carbon tax.
Alex Flint: Now we also have further views about the potential uses of the revenues from the carbon tax. Our view is that there are today a lot of distortionary taxes that the US government collects just as a background. The US government collects $3.5 trillion every year in taxes, spends $4.5 trillion, which is why we $1 trillion a year deficits, and that's a whole other thing that we can talk about. As a fiscal conservative, it bothers me deeply that the government is spending $1 trillion a year that it doesn't have and does not appear to have any means or mechanisms to address that over the long-term. I'm a father, so for me, money that we borrow today with the promise to pay it back in the future is really borrowing money from my kids to pay for today's prosperity, and I have real challenges with that. I think we need to get our fiscal house in order.
Alex Flint: I think in some ways, as what I would contend a true conservative, I have all sorts of aspirational beliefs for my country and for my kids. I want to believe that the future will be better than today. I want to believe that the climate future can be better today. I want to believe that my kids' livelihoods, their economics can be better than today. I see us in these two ways that you raised, borrowing prosperity from the future, consuming it today with consequences for the future, and I'm very uncomfortable with that, with climate pollution and our deficit spending [inaudible 00:19:42].
Alex Flint: Our suggestion is that what we need to do is look at the totality of US tax code, decide how we're going to collect the $3.5 trillion a year we do every day or every year, and we need to do it efficiently. We need to move towards a consumption tax. A tax on carbon can raise revenue that we can use to reduce taxes on earnings and income today. That will allow the economy to grow more because it's a less distortionary means of collecting the money the government necessarily needs. For conservatives, there is a way to address our long-term interest in climate and at the same time address our long-term interest in the economy in a way that will grow the economy over the long-term and make the future better for our kids on both cases both with respect to climate and with respect to the economy.
Jason Jacobs: If we were to drill down on that, so there's a carbon tax. Have you thought about specific thresholds about what that tax should be and over what period of time, and also in terms of using those proceeds to then essentially undo some other taxation or regulation of the economy, just mechanically what that looks like and how that would play out.
Alex Flint: Jason, one of the things about me is I spent 15 years working in the Senate, and during that time, now it was some time ago. More legislation was getting enacted at the time, but I did a quick estimate one time. I think I've actually written and been involved in writing about 100 things that have actually become law.
Jason Jacobs: That's 100 more than me.
Alex Flint: What I learned during that process was that entities that go to the Congress and say, "Here is a piece of legislation, we worked out all the details. Please just agree to it and pass it on our terms," that does not work. Much better to go in, meet with the Congress and say, "There are issues here. We have a set of solutions, the details of which we would like to sit and work with you on to see what sort of consensus can get built first in the committees, and then in the House, and then in the Senate, and then in the conference committees, and then in negotiations with The White House. We're doing this the way our experience shows successful legislation can actually get done.
Alex Flint: To be precise, we're not proposing exactly what the carbon level should be. We're not proposing exactly what should be done with the revenue. We're not proposing exactly which regulations should be repealed. What we are saying is a carbon tax is much more efficient than regulations, we should do a carbon tax in lieu of regulations. We should use the revenue from the carbon tax to reduce other taxes. Now let's sit down and talk about what the details of that might look like. What we're finding is for the most part Republicans are buying into the philosophy of this, that this can be a better approach than a regulatory approach or a subsidization approach, but we're a long way from working out through the details and working the politics of this issue.
Jason Jacobs: Given that there's a number of carbon tax groups out there with different proposed structures and forms, et cetera, I'm curious, if you had to do percentages, is any carbon tax far better than no carbon tax, and is there a general collaborative spirit around the different groups pushing for a carbon tax forward, or do the details of how it gets implemented fundamentally make or break whether we should even consider it, in your view.
Alex Flint: The first order issue is is a carbon tax superior to other means of addressing climate change?
Jason Jacobs: By definition, you think it is because this is what you do.
Alex Flint: Yeah, I think it is. I think most economists accept that it is. I don't think that's much of a debate. I think the politics and the details are what people discuss. Since we don't embrace any particular details, we're involved in that first order discussion. We don't get into disputes about people who want to be more precise about some of these issues. I think those groups are probably premature.
Jason Jacobs: Any specific groups to look at?
Alex Flint: I don't need to be specific. I think groups that make specific proposals risk getting tripped up over the specifics of their proposals. At this point, what members of Congress want to talk about is okay, if we want to do something about this, what are our options? What do the regulations look like? What do the subsidies look like, or what does carbon pricing look like? Tell me how that would work. Tell me about the politics of that. What levels would be reasonable? That's where we are in this conversation. I think at some point we will evolve to okay, what should the carbon price be? How would this work? What do we do on trade issues? Are there certain industries that we want to something else in? How do we want to mitigate the impacts on certain communities that will be disproportionately impacted by this? We will get to that point in the conversation, we're not there yet.
Jason Jacobs: If the revenues from a carbon tax were deployed towards something that wasn't the undoing the taxes in other areas, would you still support it?
Alex Flint: No. I said earlier, one of the greatest contributions Republicans can make to the climate discussion is sound economic analysis. Climate change is a big problem. We should not waste resources trying to address this challenge. We need to make sure we are doing this in as efficient a way as possible in large part because we need to make sure we don't have an undue impact on the economy. Our goal here is to address climate and grow the US economy, frankly, so we can address a whole bunch of issues, obligations that we currently have, fiscal considerations we have over the long-term. That takes a pretty good analysis about the fact that if you impose limits on the economy to address climate, and you make bad decisions about some of the details like what you do with the revenues or you don't get rid of the regulations, and you end up imposing a tax, plus having regulations, plus doing things you shouldn't with the revenue, you can have a tremendously deleterious impact on the economy. There are some potentially very bad courses that can be taken here. On the other hand, there are ways to do a carbon tax in lieu of other taxes, in lieu of regulations where we can address climate and grow the economy.
Jason Jacobs: One of the things you said to me in our initial breakfast meeting was that in order to get meaningful climate legislation passed it requires bipartisan support. Do you agree with that?
Alex Flint: I suspect exactly what I said was in order to address climate, we have to have a durable agreement. We can't have one party imposing a climate solution because they happen to be in power, and then when they fall out of power the other party comes in and unwinds that and imposes some other solution set. We've seen that with things like the Affordable Care Act and other things where one party gets a policy in place, and then it gets undermined by the other party when they come in power. If we're going to address a challenge that will take decades to address, we have to make sure that we have what we call a durable solution. That requires both parties to be committed to it, so that it can last over the sorts of time frames that we have the problem.
Jason Jacobs: When I talk to some climate scientists, what they tell me is we need a price on carbon. They're almost exasperated, we need a price on carbon so bad. Then I ask them, "There's cap and trade, there's a carbon tax. There's a revenue neutral carbon tax, there's this." They say, "I don't care, just give me a price on carbon." What I hear from you is that it's got to be a specific carbon tax that then removes tax and regulation in other areas, but going back to the beginning of the discussion when we talked about your kids and that you're a dad, and the future of the planet, and how concerned you are from a science standpoint. If we let specifics and other partisan type of issues get in the way of just getting a carbon tax passed and doing its part to help save the planet, then are we cutting off our nose to spite our face?
Alex Flint: Great question. My version of that question is given what we need to do, I worry that we will cut off our nose if we impose a solution that is more expensive than we need. We ought to agree that whatever we do, we should find the lowest cost solution to this problem.
Jason Jacobs: Isn't any cost solution better than no solution?
Alex Flint: No, absolutely not.
Jason Jacobs: Status quo is better than a high-cost solution?
Alex Flint: Let me go way back to one of the reasons that I work in energy policy space. I am well aware of the fact that there's a direct correlation between access to energy and standard of living, life expectancy, a whole bunch of factors. I think there's a moral imperative that we provide energy to people around the world. I think failure to do that will result in political unrest because I think there will be demand for it, that if politicians don't satisfy, there will be political unrest that results from that.
Jason Jacobs: You mean the 1.1 billion people that don't have access to basic electricity.
Alex Flint: I think one of our great challenges is how do we provide them access to energy? How do we assume that global energy consumption per capita will continue to rise to some level, probably not to the US level, but certainly to higher than the average global per capita access to energy today, and yet do it much cleaner than the way we do it today? I'm motivated by these things because I want people to have better lives. If we say we're going to impose a set of regulations or set of costs that limit access, that have a deletorious impact on our standard of living, we're working contrary to what I believe motivates me, but we're also creating a system that results in political discord.
Alex Flint: If we impose regulatory costs that achieve the same carbon pollution, but cost six times as much as doing it with a carbon tax, we're taking away from people's standards of living. I don't think that's acceptable. Focusing on the efficiency of a carbon tax enables us to say validly, "We want to address this problem, but we want to do it in the way that provides people the most opportunity that they can possibly have." Anything else is just taking away from that prosperity.
Jason Jacobs: I think the counterargument to that though, and I don't want to hammer this point because there's a lot of other things I'd like to cover, but essentially, what I'm hearing is carbon tax generates the revenue that then saves money for the big corporations and the most wealthy individuals where if you took that same revenue from a carbon tax and put it towards social good, for example, the problem that you're talking about, the inequality and things like that, it seems like it would help it a lot more directly.
Alex Flint: You've made a false correlation there. What I've said is that taxes on earnings and incomes are more distortionary and hamper economic growth, that we should use revenue from a carbon tax to reduce taxes on earnings and income. You then leapt to, that's going to benefit the wealthiest corporations and the wealthiest individuals. I didn't make that statement.
Jason Jacobs: I'm just assuming because they're the ones that are funding this and that are pushing so hard for it to get through.
Alex Flint: What I suggested was the taxes on income and earnings should go down at all levels. That creates greater incentive for people to earn, to make a living, and to prosper. It's got nothing to do with where the distributions of those reductions come from. You're making that correlation. I'm making a very simple argument that it is better to put a tax on carbon pollution, use that revenue to reduce taxes on earnings and income. That will grow the economy and increase prosperity for everybody.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. Switching gears a little bit, one of the things that I've heard as I've talked to different people about a carbon tax is that it will never happen in any form. I've actually heard from one person just yesterday that he was suspect of anybody that's working in this area because it's so clear that it's never going to happen.
Alex Flint: Compared to what?
Jason Jacobs: I don't know.
Alex Flint: I think I don't know is a great answer to that question, actually. I realize you just said that quickly, but compared to cap and trade? Cap and trade is a harder political [inaudible 00:30:33] than a carbon tax is today.
Jason Jacobs: I guess compared to status quo. Everything is compared to status quo.
Alex Flint: Everything is compared to status quo. Okay, but what's the competition here? Where's the cap and trade proposal that's more attractive right now than a carbon tax? It doesn't exist. My contention, and I'll have this debate with anybody, is that today we are better off pursuing a carbon tax and building the political consensus to do that than we are pursuing a consensus on a cap and trade. Cap and trade regimes have been dismissed politically since the failure of [inaudible 00:31:02]. To anybody who wants to say sort of, "Carbon tax is not realistic," I will say, "Compared to what?"
Jason Jacobs: Compared to not having the political will to get it done, I think is the question.
Alex Flint: If people want to have a discussion about, are we going to have the political will to get this done, what I will tell you is, "Today we do not." We're not going to get anything enacted this afternoon, but over the next several years I see that political consensus building and coming together.
Jason Jacobs: If you just take a snapshot, how would you describe where that political consensus is today versus maybe six months or a year ago since you mentioned at the start of the discussion that there's been a momentum building over the last few months, and also, where would you like it to be in your dream scenario 12 months from now?
Alex Flint: I think that's what has happened. In the first 18 months of AMS's existence we met with Republican policy makers largely in private. We asked them, "Do you see what we're seeing about climate change?" The answer in almost every case was, "Yes, I see it. I see evidence of climate change. I see bark beetle infestation, or sea level rise, or hurricane intensity," or whatever it was. The important part of the conversation came next. It was okay, as conservatives, what do we do about this? We don't like regulations, we don't like subsidies. What's the solution set that we as conservatives can discuss? What's happened in the last six months is that those conversations that we used to have in private are not public. Republicans are now comfortable discussing publicly, acknowledging publicly that the climate is changing, and that the hard part of this conversation is actually agreeing on a policy to respond to it. You'll see members say, "We all acknowledge the climate is changing. The real challenge we have is what do we do about it?"
Jason Jacobs: There's some contingent that continues to smack that contingent down.
Alex Flint: Yes, there's a very small group of people who are deniers.
Jason Jacobs: Including our President.
Alex Flint: I don't believe the deniers are conservative on this issue. My view is that denying the risk of climate change is irresponsible and that conservatives are fundamentally responsible people, that we are risk adverse. Yes, I recognize there are a few deniers. What I've said is that the deniers should be sent off to wherever the folks who believe the earth is flat and that we didn't go to the moon are, and they should just be left off by themselves. It's a small group, significantly declining influence in Washington right now. The real question is between reasonable Republicans and reasonable Democrats, can there ever be a durable solution? That's a conversation that really doesn't involve the deniers.
Jason Jacobs: If Republicans are increasingly now publicly believing in science and they are concerned and feel like we need to do something, and we have a President who's rhetoric is outwardly, that that is not true, and that it's just weather, and weather goes up and weather goes down, and on Mars weather goes up and weather goes down, why is there still overwhelming Republican support for our President?
Alex Flint: Let me give you a little commentary about the opportunity that this President has created. This President on a number of issues has taken positions that are outside of traditional conservative orthodoxy, Republican orthodoxy on a whole host of things. What it has meant is that conservative Republicans like me are left to consider, what is our party's position on a whole host of different issues? The fact that I'm trying to guide a conversation about what our party's position on climate change no longer is extraordinary. Those conversations are going on in a whole bunch of different spaces. One of the things that this President has done is he's liberated Republicans to reconsider our orthodoxy on a whole host of different issues. It's chaotic, but it has enabled in part this reconsideration on climate and yes, the position has staked out a position for the time being on where he is on climate. There's a very different conversation going on with Republican members of Congress.
Jason Jacobs: Here's what this leaves me feeling. It's great that Republicans are increasingly believing in science, but if they're still supporting a President who outwardly denies it, then believing in science can't stand very high on their priority list in terms of how concerned they are about the planet. Otherwise, they wouldn't support the President.
Alex Flint: Was that a question or a statement?
Jason Jacobs: That's how I feel, and I guess react to that how you will. If you agree, there's a discrepancy because Republicans now overwhelmingly in your words believe in science and are now having a public conversation instead of having a private conversation, yet publicly overwhelmingly support this President who's an outward denier. Those things seem fundamentally at odds, so what am I missing? That's the question.
Alex Flint: As somebody who's sort of a practitioner of getting things done in Washington, let me give you the way I think about that, which is not a whole lot. That question, to me, is sort of related to, who do I think is going to win the 2020 election? Who's going to win the 2022 election, the 2024 election? Who will control the House? Who will control the Senate? Who will the next President be, et cetera? When I think about this I think about two strategic forces. The first is that the science of climate change is becoming clearer and clearer, and climate change is becoming manifest. People are experiencing it. At the same time, there is pressure on the fiscal side of the house as we continue running up $1 trillion a year deficits. We have trust funds going insolvent in the 2020, big ones, like Medicare, social security in 2032, et cetera.
Alex Flint: I see those two forces converging at some point when we need to make rational, reasonable decisions about both what we do about climate and what we do about fiscal issues. That convergence puts a carbon tax in play. That's not related to who wins in 2020 or 2022, or 2024. It really is these two large strategic forces converging at some point in the future and Washington responding. The important thing for me with this President because I know that those forces have not yet converged, and it's not right for the deal today, I'm not so worried about where the President is today. What I'm making sure is that a carbon tax is being socialized, is part of the conversation, so that it is available to policy makers, so that they can make good decisions at the right time. That's still a couple years off. In the meantime, what this President is doing is he's freeing Republicans to think about these things in ways they weren't just a few years ago to reexamine their orthodoxy.
Jason Jacobs: On the broader strategy standpoint of getting the carbon tax done, I'm with you. I think that makes sense. The thing I'm still struggling with is I don't understand how any Republican that claims that they care about science can support the President without consciously putting party over planet.
Alex Flint: The first thing you've done with that question is you've isolated it to climate exclusively, and people don't think about the President and then climate exclusively.
Jason Jacobs: What degree of existential crisis do you believe that we're in? Is it overblown? Are we not in crisis as a planet?
Alex Flint: I think we have a very serious problem with climate, but I also think that for most Republican politicians there's a whole host of issues that they have to contemplate when they think about their relationship with the President. Look, I'm not here to comment or to defend or comment, or otherwise on this big issue you're asking me about, which is what is the relationship between Republicans and the President? What I can talk to you about is how Republican views on climate are changing and how I think it's going to continue to evolve.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. I guess we can move on. There is this fundamental hypocrisy in my mind that's still not resolved, and I'm not talking about with your organization, but with the overall Republican Party that is still rallied behind our President unless they believe in science, but climate just isn't a big issue on their ticket.
Alex Flint: You're evaluating that relationship just through the lens of climate. It's actually a much more complex relationship that has to do with a whole host of different issues. I don't think it's reasonable to evaluate it on that issue alone.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. I saw an email that you wrote, was it a month ago?
Alex Flint: Did more than one email over the last month. Any one in particular?
Jason Jacobs: It was the one that went public and viral.
Alex Flint: Yes.
Jason Jacobs: It was calling out Republicans who don't believe in science.
Alex Flint: What I did was I called out deniers. What I said was that deniers are not conservative, that the true conservative response to the risk of climate change is to seek to reduce that risk. What I did was I said, "Look, I am a conservative. I worked for a Republican chairman in the Senate. I attend church every Sunday. I overinsure my house, my car, my life. I save for my kids' education and for my retirement. I am risk adverse." That same aversion to risk applies for true conservatives to the way we think about climate. It's not the certainty of climate change, it's the risk of climate change that drives true conservatives to believe we need to do something to reduce that risk.
Jason Jacobs: What kind of response did that email receive?
Alex Flint: Some people thought it was brilliant, other people not so much. What it's a statement about, really, is that within conservative circles there's a real debate. This is not some theoretical issue where I'm claiming that Republican orthodoxy is changing and others would deny that the orthodoxy is changing. There's a heated debate going on among conservatives right now. We and I are part of that debate. I think one of the stories about that email questioned whether my email might be a tipping point in the conversation. I think the most important part about what I stated in that was really trying to apply correctly true conservative values to climate. This isn't a denial of conservatism, this is a question about how should conservative values be applied on this issue?
Alex Flint: My view is that true conservatism seeks to avoid the risks associated with all sorts of issues including the risk associated with climate change. Our objective over the long run is for conservatives to take the lead on addressing climate. That's a long way from where we are today, but recognize that reducing risk is consistent with our values and reducing risks in a manner that makes the most economic sense also appeals to our traditional views about sound economic policy, and that's where a carbon tax can come into play. It is the most efficient way of addressing climate change, and it is the way we can address climate change and grow the economy. If it's done correctly, that can appeal in both ways to traditional conservative values. Our goal is in the long-term for conservatives to be at the table addressing climate change with bonafide better proposals than other people have on the same issues.
Jason Jacobs: What do you think the fear is in conservative circles of removing this issue from partisanship and just then battling on the policies versus ... What's the concern of admitting that the climate is changing, and that it's caused by humans, and that it's a problem?
Alex Flint: As I think about all the meetings I've had with the Republican policy makers in the last two years, I think that the majority of them are open to making that change, but have the same trepidation that people have with making changes. Politicians, it's fascinating the ego of politicians who are absolutely dependent upon popular vote for reelection and getting their jobs. They're very concerned about how they will be received in public meetings and whether people will criticize them for changing their positions on things, or whether they need to be credited with evolving as evidence and situations have evolved.
Alex Flint: Frankly, what we find with most of the conversations we have is okay, how do I do this? What are the simple things? If I'm at a town hall meeting, and I'm asked about climate change, what's the right thing to say to which we, by the way say, "You should acknowledge it." Even if you aren't comfortable with any of the solutions, acknowledge climate change. That gains trust with voters that you're seeing issues the same way you're seeing issues. Also, acknowledging that the solutions are difficult. Voters understand that and agree with that. You can say that and be in a good place with people in your town hall meetings, and then in your meetings with constituents all those sorts of things. I think that most Republicans that we talk to are actively thinking about how their positions are going to evolve and how they're going to explain the need to change on this to the voters on whom they're dependent for their jobs.
Jason Jacobs: Last question. I've been asking this question to every guest so far, so I might as well ask it to you. If you put aside you and the work that your organization does, and you just had a big pot of money, say $100 billion, and you could put it towards anything in the climate fight where it could have the biggest impact, either one thing or in a portfolio approach, what would you do with? Where would you allocate it to have the biggest impact that it could?
Alex Flint: $100 billion?
Jason Jacobs: That's the number I gave to others, so I feel like I should keep the same one. I could be talked into a different number though.
Alex Flint: My response on that is actually is maybe quite different than other people's. I don't think the success is on how we spend money on individual projects. I think our success depends upon how we create a market that incentivizes the entire economy. For example, energy generation and distribution systems in 2017, we spent $1.5 trillion worldwide, so $100 billion is not a lot of money when you think about the scale of the problem that large. My simple answer was, if I had $100 billion I would spend it making sure that any Republican who ran for office and pledged to address climate could be assured that the deniers would not be able to harm them at all, is what I'd do. I'd run a massive political campaign to make it so that Republicans could be absolutely assured that if they said, "I want to address climate," that they would be protected from the deniers.
Jason Jacobs: You'd invent Koch Brother kryptonite.
Alex Flint: No. Look, one of the issues is that for politically, for Democrats, there's a huge infrastructure left of center that supports them on climate, think tanks, academics, donors, foundations, the environmental organizations. For Republicans, that infrastructure does not currently exist. There are a few small organizations committed to helping Republicans on this issue. If we're going to have a durable, long-term solution, there has to be equality. There has to be those infrastructure, those systems that provide political support to Republicans to encourage them, to help engage on this, and then so that when they do they don't have to fear political consequences associated with it. I think a lot of people, particularly my friends on the left, fail to understand the difference for a Democrat to say something positive about climate versus a Republican who is really forging their own path. If I had the resources, we would create that infrastructure right of center for Republicans that's equivalent for Democrats left of center.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. Anything else I didn't ask you, or any parting words that you want to impart on our listeners?
Alex Flint: Republican climate orthodoxy is changing. In a couple of years, I believe Republicans can contribute equally to climate solutions to Democrats and be an integral part of ensuring that we have durable solutions in this country that can then be applied globally.
Jason Jacobs: Alex, I think we had a great discussion. We may not agree on everything, but one, you've been a great sport and two, I do think you're doing really important work, so thank you for the work you do.
Alex Flint: Good to see you. You're clearly coming around, you'll get there.
Jason Jacobs: Alex Flint, thank you for coming on the show.
Alex Flint: My pleasure.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on my climate journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co. That is .co, not .com. Someday we'll get the .com, but right now, .co. You can also find me on Twitter at @jjacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. Before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.