Why are Republicans offering a carbon tax?

Conservatives have warned of the disastrous economic effects of Barack Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade system and the massive burdens it will impose on American families.  Republicans have derided it as a tax, and a particularly regressive one, that will force working-class earners to choose between heat, lighting, and food.  In response, House conservatives have proposed … a carbon tax?

Well this complicates things. Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) have proposed a carbon tax as an alternative to Democrats’ cap-and-trade legislation.

The legislation would tax carbon at the rate or $15/ton, rising to $100/ton over three decades.

For months, House Republicans have been blasting cap-and-trade as the equivalent of a tax on energy, a message which seems weaker now that two very conservative Republicans have proposed a direct tax themselves.

From McClatchy:

Reps. Bob Inglis of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona on Wednesday became the first Republican lawmakers to introduce legislation imposing a carbon tax on producers and distributors of fossil fuels.

The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, would set a tax of $15 a ton of carbon dioxide produced in its first year in effect, with the tax rising to $100 a ton over three decades.

“The first axiom of economics is if you want less of something, you tax it,” said Flake, a leading fiscal conservative, in an interview. “Obviously, we want less carbon, so we tax it.”

Is it really obvious that we want less carbon?  Particulate matter, perhaps, but Republicans have challenged the notion that more carbon dioxide leads to anything other than better plant growth.  An EPA memo appears to at least make the argument that the government hasn’t proven any harm from CO2 that doesn’t involve a gas mask and a lot of duct tape.

So why propose a carbon tax as a rebuttal to cap-and-trade?  Eric Zimmerman at The Hill postulates that Flake and Inglis hope to use the proposal to give some Democrats cover for breaking away from cap-and-trade.  Obama’s proposal is not popular with Rust Belt representatives, who want an excuse to bail on the White House’s pet energy project.  The carbon tax will go nowhere, they hope, but will create enough inertia to stop cap-and-trade, too.

I’m not so sure.  It sounds as though Flake and Inglis are more or less endorsing the prime motivation behind cap-and-trade while Rust Belters want to reject the notion that CO2 presents any proximate harm at all.  I hope the strategy works, but it has a high risk of backfiring.