Close this search box.

College Republicans Propose an Unusual Idea From the Right: A Carbon Tax


Alexander Posner, right, at a meeting of Students for Carbon Dividends at Yale University. The group pulls together millennial-aged conservatives to promote acceptance of climate change and propose conservative solutions.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

As the Republican Party struggles to find its footing with the next generation of voters, several conservative college groups have banded together to champion something anathema to the party: a carbon tax.

The group is led by the Yale College Republicans, the main campus student organization for young Republicans at Yale, and includes other prominent Republican groups at 22 other schools around the country including Clemson University in South Carolina, North Carolina State University and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Under the name Students for Carbon Dividends, the coalition is backing an idea first broached by Republican heavyweights including former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz: Tax the carbon pollution produced by burning fossil fuels and then return the money to consumers as a dividend in the form of monthly cash payments to individuals, both adults and children alike.

Late last month, several of the campus Republican leaders involved in the climate change coalition visited Washington to volunteer at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians.

Republican strategists said the budding movement reflected an important shift on social and environmental issues that could divide the party along generational lines. Political polls suggest that millennials are dissatisfied with what they see as politics as usual from both parties. But Republicans said they worried their ranks would bear the brunt of the shift as young people moved away from party orthodoxy on issues like guns, gay marriage and climate change.

“I think what we see is that, at a time when younger voters are rejecting party politics broadly, they’re rejecting the Republican Party at a much higher rate because what they see, according to them, is a party that doesn’t want to listen and doesn’t want to grow,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

“It’s a problem right now, but it’s going to be a catastrophic problem in five years or 10 years,” Mr. Heye said.

The leaders of nearly two dozen Republican student groups involved in the coalition said they and their peers accepted the scientific consensus that humans have played a significant role in warming the planet. Many said they were tired of hearing Republican leaders deny climate change and did not want their party branded as anti-science.

“As a party, we’re losing voters rapidly because of this issue,” said Kiera O’Brien, president of Harvard University’s Republican club, which is a member of the carbon-tax coalition. “I’m increasingly frustrated by the fact that the science is disputed when there’s clearly evidence of climate change. We need to have a solution for our party, but we also need a solution that’s an alternative between doing nothing or ceding everything to the government.”

By embracing what they call a conservative approach, the students said they hoped to help move the Republican Party on the issue.

Under the plan the students are proposing, an initial tax of $40 per ton of carbon would be levied at the point where fossil fuels enter the economy, for instance a mine or port. The tax would increase over time. That money would then be returned to taxpayers in a per-person monthly payment, with half-payments going to children under the age of 18 and a limit of two children per family. The Climate Leadership Council created by Mr. Baker and Mr. Shultz estimates a dividend would amount to about $2,000 a year for a family of four.