Tim Phillips: The Case Against Climate Legislation

Tim Phillips is president of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group devoted to limited government and free-market conservatism. He says that legislation to combat climate change would be devastating for families and businesses, resulting in “higher taxes, lost jobs,” and “less freedom.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 4, 2012.

First of all, congratulations. I mean, this is quite a meeting.

Thanks. This is our sixth annual Defending the American Dream Summit. We launched these in the fall of 2007. It’s a great way to bring activists together from around the country to kind of bond with the organization, and also it’s good to have a bunch of free-market conservatives in D.C. occasionally as well.

How does free-market conservatism relate to climate change and the scientific argument over climate change?

It doesn’t to the scientific side. It very much, though, relates to the policies that the left pushes in the name of global warming. The cap-and-trade energy tax would have been a devastating tax on individual American families and businesses.

So it’s more the policies that they pursue in the name of global warming that concerns us, not so much the science of it. But I’m not a scientist and don’t pretend to be.

But you do talk about the science.

Not much. If you look at my statements over the last seven years, not very often. I say basically to say that the debate is settled strikes us as a bit over the top when you have thousands of scientists and Ph.D.’s around the world who suggest otherwise.

Thousands of scientists around the world say?

Who suggest otherwise that the debate is not over as to whether or not it’s man creating climate change or global warming.

I would have thought in 2008 that this whole global warming, climate change, it was a done deal.

I think most people did. … I often say if you ever wonder as an activist on our side are you making a difference, just look at cap and trade.

In January ’09, we had a president with an historic honeymoon period who wasn’t a big cap-and-trade supporter. You had 60 votes in the Senate with [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] you had Speaker [of the House Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] with a 50-plus-seat majority, and cap and trade was at the top of their agenda. And in the end they were beaten.

And they weren’t beaten because we had superior money or we had superior mainstream media coverage or we had superior political officeholders. They were beaten because the American people in the end made a point of saying, “I don’t think you’re going to raise taxes in the name of global warming on energy and drive up our utility bills and gas prices.” …

But [it was] in some part due to your work. I mean, you guys went into action.

I think we played a part. I think it was a broad effort, but I think we played a part.

What part did you play?

We certainly did TV ads, radio ads, social media. We did rallies, events. We launched something we called Hot Air. … We rented a balloon and went around the country. I’m not much for heights, and I was very nervous up in balloons, but we wanted to dramatize it in a real way.

So we got up in a hot-air balloon, put a banner on the side of it that said, “Cap and trade means higher taxes, lost jobs, less freedom.” And we went all over the country doing events and stirring up grassroots anger and frustration, concern, and frankly also pointing out the impact of the policies they were proposing. …

Is there an ideology here?

Absolutely.

What’s your ideology?

It’s a free-market ideology that says lower taxes, less government spending, less government regulation is a better way to economic prosperity and that the government cannot create prosperity. We often hear the term, you know, “I” — meaning a president or a senator — “created jobs in my state.” Not really. The evidence suggests otherwise.

“We got up in a hot-air balloon, put a banner on the side of it that said, ‘Cap and trade means higher taxes, lost jobs, less freedom.’”

Government doesn’t create long-term prosperity. Government redistributes income.

They have a role, by the way. You don’t hear us from the podium at AFP [Americans for Prosperity] Foundation here saying, “Do away with government.” Of course government has a role. You bet it does. But when it becomes a predominant force in a society or in an economy, prosperity is lowered for everyone.

When you heard that members of Congress were really backing away from talking about global warming, were you loving that? Were you saying, “Boy, we are having an influence”?

Yes, it’s an encouraging factor. But you realize they still want to do it. So you look at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] right now; you look at Interior. I mean, this administration, … they have an agenda they are pushing on this. Cap and trade was their primary vehicle. …

But in the end, when you look at what the corporations were doing — and most corporations signed off on cap and trade; most of the big oil companies did. They said, yeah, because they can pass the cost along. Most of the utility companies around the country went ahead and said, “Sure, we’ll do this; we are not going to pick a fight over this.”

So this was really an uprising from the ground up. It was not the biggest corporations in the country doing it. They all signed off on it. It’s just like with health care. They cut deals with the administration to try to move on.

If the fossil fuel industry is basically going for a cap and trade, why are you still fighting?

That’s the wrong thing to do for the country. It is going to harm certainly small businesses and families, the ones that depend on cheap, abundant energy the most.

One of the keys to economic prosperity is cheap, abundant energy, especially in a small-business world. High energy costs aren’t just the gasoline, the utility bills on your home; it’s also every product cost goes up.

Some people think of you as kind of the Karl Rove of this whole climate change debate.

I don’t know. I mean, I’m going to leave that to others.

But what you say and what comes from AFP really becomes a kind of marching order on Capitol Hill.

I don’t know about that.

You talked to the legislators. You were there at the freshman ceremony in 2010.

Here is what I found, though. At least in our world, you don’t have the ability to impact legislators because you go around Washington talking to people. … You get the ability to influence by going out into the country and having folks in their states or in their districts calling and emailing and visiting district offices and holding rallies and events. …

You’ve said, “If we win the science argument, I think it’s game, set and match.”

Mm-hmm. In a broader-movement sense, if that argument is won, I do. The underpinning for what they want to do to us, you know, cap and trade and other big government programs, they try to leverage the science. I mean, I heard [Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass.] say — I guess this week I think it was — he went on this long tirade about, “Well, we have nuclear weapons in Iran — potentially we have, you know; everything else is going on, but really the most important thing is civilization not ending as we know it because of global warming.”

And I think that reflects everything that the average American looks at Washington and says — they go: “Wait a minute. Unemployment just went up. We just had our 42nd, I guess now, consecutive month [of] employment over 8 percent. We’ve got a deficit over a trillion dollars that’s inhibiting economic growth. We have all these — and by the way, we do have foreign policy challenges, and here’s a senator getting up and saying that.” I think that’s one reason [the] left and a lot of people in Washington they are losing. It doesn’t ring true with what the average American looks at in their life.

But, Tim, why do you want to win the science argument?

I think if the science argument is won, I do think it would pull out the final underpinning of this legislative effort and this regulatory effort the left is undertaking. It would do that. …

But how are you going to win the science argument if you are not a scientist?

I’m saying in a broader sense “we” as a movement. Within a movement, yeah, people who focus on different areas. I know AFP’s focal point is the grassroots side, so it’s a broad movement. It’s a royal “we” I think I’m referring to there.

You said, “We’ve made great headway.” … What it means for candidates on the Republican side is if you buy into green energy or you play footsie on this issue, you do so at your political peril?

You do, absolutely. And that’s the big change, and it is important. Again, I remember four, five or even three years ago, John, a lot of Republicans, they would play games with this. They would try to, you know, get into the middle. They’d say: “OK, oh, gosh, I think I need a green-energy agenda. Let’s spend government money on giving a leg up to certain kind of industries that gives me the green cover. But I won’t go all the way and support cap and trade.” They did. They tried to walk down the middle, and that’s wrong.

I think it’s philosophically inconsistent, but it’s also politically disadvantageous. And we’ve worked hard to make that so, by the way.

Now, did you scare them back? I mean, political peril, I’d be scared. I’d be scared.

No. Here is what we want to do. We want to make sure on a consistent basis they are hearing from folks in their district and their state that they shouldn’t do that and it’s wrong, and they are not happy if they do that. That’s our goal at AFP.

Yeah, we do TV ads, radio ads, absolutely. But everyone does TV ads, or most people do. I mean, they are important, or we wouldn’t do it. But if that’s all you’ve got, you are dead.

“I think if the science argument is won, I do think it would pull out the final underpinning of this legislative effort and this regulatory effort the left is undertaking.”

And I’ll tell you something: I do think one of the changed points, or one of the more decisive moments, John, over the last three or four years has been in the old days, … the left had their troops. … I saw it. They had money and activists and still do. Our side had some money, and we’d put TV ads up and radio ads up, but on the ground they killed us, and they killed us for a lot of years throughout the ’90s, early 2000s.

But I do think one thing we’ve changed with AFP — and I think not just AFP but mainly groups on our side — is we now have an army, too, and we can do the same kind of calls and emails and letters and rallies, events and pressure. I mean that word in a good sense.

And I think that’s made a big difference. Our side didn’t have that five or six years ago on this issue. We do now. I do think it’s a new day for that reason.

In the media today, when a bunch of scientists stand up and say, “We agree,” there is a consensus, it kind of looks like they are in cahoots, whereas if you are skeptical and you’re questioning, it looks more like you’re debating and that it’s kind of a free exchange of ideas. Is that an advantage for you?

I think it is to an extent.

Makes them look like a conspiracy.

One of the reasons I say “to an extent,” the email-gate [the "Climategate" scandal] was occurring. I think it did harm them, because when you read those emails — and I did read them — they don’t sound like the average American thinks scientists ought to sound. They did sound more political, and they did sound like they had an agenda beyond just the science. And I do think that hurt them. …

I think that Americans have a healthy skepticism toward the establishment. They do. They have, and God bless us for that. That’s one of the great things about our nation. They have a skepticism toward government that’s big. They don’t think it works very well. They are not anti-government, and that’s the key thing.

Americans are not anti-government. They are skeptical of government at a certain level. …

What was the opportunity that An Inconvenient Truth gave you?

There were a number of falsehoods in the movie. I mean, that’s one problem.

But just in terms of Vice President [Al] Gore.

Yeah. I think it was his tone and manner. He did at a certain point come across as holier-than-thou. And that’s another thing about Americans. They are not really big on holier-than-thou. …

And at some point in the last 15 years, you know, the man, so to speak, in the education establishment became Mr. Environmental Over-the-Top Guy or Gal, and they began forcing this movie down our kids’ throats. My kids, my twin boys, who graduated from high school this year, they had to watch An Inconvenient Truth four times since eighth grade. Four times. And it became a joke at high school, a joke. …

I didn’t have anything to that. I do not have to do some nefarious plot to undermine An Inconvenient Truth. When you tell a kid who’s 14, 15, 16, 17 they have to watch the same movie as gospel four times in five years, they are going to laugh at you at a certain point.

So they blew it.

I do think they blew it. And now, you know, in the school assemblies at least once or twice every school year, you have some environmental person getting up, one-sided, telling everyone to come save the polar bears or stop the oceans from rising or something. And at a certain point they became the man. I think that’s the problem for them. I do. I think they’ve got to retool everything. I think they’ve gone too far.

Too late maybe.

I don’t know.

Too late for this election.

Well, that issue is not good for them right now. If you’ve noticed, the president doesn’t talk much about it.

I’ve noticed.

I mean, I’ve noticed that.

Does that make you feel good?

I think it says a lot about the effort, and I think it says a lot about Americans making a decision. And we want to talk about it. At this point, I would love to have a discussion about green energy and is it good to spend billions of dollars on it. And there’s going to be more discussion, I guarantee you, ads and everything else. …

Is the EPA trying to sort of take over the U.S. economy using climate change as a kind of a stepping stone?

I think Lisa Jackson and EPA are certainly the most extreme regulatory agency as far as killing jobs we’ve had in decades in this country — years in this country. And they are doing it, I think, in pursuit largely of the global warming agenda, and it’s hurtful to the economy.

And by the way, they’ve been pushed back in federal courts. You’ve probably seen, John, some of the federal court losses they’ve just suffered in recent weeks because they are going so far with their ideology on the implementation phase of regulation. By the way, that’s a problem for this president, too. I don’t see Lisa Jackson out front very often at events. They know that she is a problem and that the EPA is a problem.

Who funds AFP?

We have over 80,000 activists and donors across the country who fund AFP.

Some big donors?

Sure, you bet. We are glad to have big donors, absolutely.

Koch brothers?

David Koch, the chairman of our AFP Foundation, we are glad to have his support. We don’t disclose the level of contributions, but we are very proud to have their support.

Exxon?

I wish we had more corporate support. I do. I’ll put it this way: We would happily take corporate money from the biggest Fortune 100 companies. They don’t tend to want to give to AFP very often. They think, frankly, that we are too out there on the free-market front.

They think that it’s — this is my sense, anyway — that we are too risky for them, because we go out and do rallies and events and we confront people. We absolutely do. I would happily take their funding. It doesn’t come around very much from publicly held Fortune 100 companies.

Who’s Donors Trust?

Donors Trust I think is (c)(4) or (c)(3) that’s given to us, absolutely.

And do you know who is behind it?

I think their board is publicly listed. I’m pretty sure that that information is public.

And why is Americans — I mean, you’re the head of a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4).

Right. But we keep the accounting separate for both the organizations.

So one allows you to do what and the other allows you to do what?

The (c)(3) is broader education efforts. The (c)(4) let’s us get very specific about legislation and individual bills and where individual elected leaders have voted.

Just as a brief example, if on global warming or cap and trade we want to do a (c)(3) ad, it would sound something like this: “Green-energy spending from the government to support green-energy programs is inefficient. It’s wasteful, and it leads to government cronyism. That’s not the best thing for our country.” That would be a (c)(3) ad.

A (c)(4) ad might be, “President Obama’s funding of [solar panel maker] Solyndra wasted a half-billion taxpayer dollars. It led to cronyism.” See the difference? The (c)(4) ad allows you to be very specific to the officeholder, name names and lets you be very specific to the legislation, whereas with the (c)(3) ad you can discuss philosophical education terms, but you really can’t get specific. Those are the two big differences.

The (c)(3) is tax-deductible.

And as long as the accounting is different, you can do both?

We can do both, but it’s by each entity separately doing it. But the same individuals are allowed to operate for both entities. So I can do work for our (c)(3); I can do work for our (c)(4). We have to keep pretty careful timecards, pretty careful accounting for how we do. We are allowed to work for both, absolutely.

Is doubt the weapon you use in this debate?

No, I don’t think so. It’s what they want to do to us in the name of their ideology. I mean, if you look at the vast majority of the messaging over the last five or six years that we fought this effort, the vast majority of it where we do our TV ads or rallies, events, it’s about, “Here are the consequences, and here are the policies and the consequences they lead to.”

That’s the vast majority of it. I mean, every once in a while I’ll make a statement about the science and give a reference to couple of them, but that’s probably — or not probably — it’s a tiny percentage of what we do and how we spend our money.

You win on the policy, you win on the science.

I think so. I do. I do think so. And when you look at cap and trade, when you look at the specific policies, they want to talk about the vast consequences if you don’t do something. That’s so in doubt as well. I mean, if you think about it, and how they are operating with what they’ve done over the last two decades, it’s been to paint a bleak picture for mankind’s future and then to go quiet on what they want to do in the name of it.

Ours is the opposite. Ours is, say, look, you have a debate about science. Sure you can, if you want. We’ll let some scientists do that. But let’s look very carefully at what they want to do to us. The tax increases on our utility bills, on gasoline prices — do you want $8 a gallon like in Europe? The energy secretary [Steven Chu] that we currently have has said that would not be a bad thing for the country; it might be even a good idea.

Let’s look at the individual policies. It’s been an interesting dichotomy between how they operate and how we operate on this issue. If you want to talk about doubt, they are the ones trying to sow doubt. …

What if they are right?

What if we are right? What if we are right and we destroy our economy and harm individual folks who are poor who can’t afford to pay utility bills that are double or triple? …

I always kind of choke when I hear someone go, “Oh, all we are going to do is a little bit here and there.” That’s always some elitist talking … who is flying in jets around the world. …

[Soccer star] David Beckham flies back and forth London to L.A. three, four times in a week and then lectures average folks on doing less. I mean, give me a break. It’s laughable to people. I think that’s the other big problem they have is they are hypocritical.

The Black Eyed Peas, they sing — by the way, I like the Black Eyed Peas; they are on my iPod. But that guy flies a private helicopter from downtown London out to a global warming awareness event in the suburbs of London, and then you wonder why support is fading for this stuff.

This is hypocrisy. Come on.

It’s like fish in a barrel for you?

Well, it’s embarrassing for them. And it should be. They are telling average people to do less, and then they are still zapping around. I mean, Al Gore would tell everyone to change your lifestyles, and he built this big mansion in California. We’re for mansions, by the way. Good for him. He’s gone out and used global warming to make a gazillion dollars. Good for him. But then he tells everyone else to [rein] their lifestyles in, and then he wonders why he’s losing — his credibility is dropping. I mean, come on. It’s not a serious effort.

Is this a fight about freedom on some level?

I think it’s partly a fight about freedom.

In a big way?

Yeah. I mean, economic freedom, sure. Economic freedom is a biggie, sure.

And that’s what these people are cheering about?

Yeah, I think so.

And the No Climate Tax pledge — you are kind of a Grover Norquist of climate change as well. How many people have responded?

We found about a few hundred elected leaders of Canada signed that pledge. And that’s a good thing. I think it’s good for Canada, for elected officeholders to make a contract with the people they represent.

To never do anything to raise government revenue because of global warming?

I think that’s a good thing. I mean, in the end, it seems like the predisposition, once they are in office, is to start spending more and looking for ways to find more revenues. So it’s good, in advance, hopefully to get them to sign on the dotted line that they shouldn’t do that, and they won’t do that. …

I worked — and I don’t talk about this real often; compassion is good for the soul, I guess — but I was a chief of staff on Capitol Hill for three years. I was a government employee for three years, three and a half years.

Taking the taxpayers’ money.

I was getting that health insurance. I still feel guilty to this day. Best health insurance I ever had, by the way, because I had choice. But that’s a different issue, I know, for a different time.

But I remember being stunned that when we first got in office, and I was working for a guy who was a vim-and-vigor fighter and still is, [Rep.] Bob Goodlatte [R-Va.], a guy from Virginia.

I remember thinking that, you know, we were going to save the world, cut government spending, etc. And I was stunned because the first day up there, we had people lining up to ask him for more money and for stuff from the government. And it was a never-ending trend.

That was the biggest shock of being on Capitol Hill for three years. I guess I was naive. I didn’t understand. And these weren’t just big fat-cat lobbyists. These were a lot of just, you know, stuff from back home who were asking for money and goodies and earmarks and all. And very seldom did we have anyone coming up there and saying: “Congressman, don’t do it, OK? Don’t give us any money. Don’t give us any goodies from the federal trough.”

And I remember thinking at the time, you know, one day we are going to build an operation that will fix that. And hopefully we are doing that with AFP, where people go up to Washington or their elected leaders and say: ‘”Don’t do this stuff. Don’t give us goodies. Don’t give us that earmark.”

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