Race, Politics, and Washington’s Climate-Change Schism

What should we talk about when we talk about carbon?

The march from City Hall to Occidental Park on October 14 marked a new era in the climate movement. As hundreds strode, sang, and shouted their truths to the world, lifting signs like “No Gentrification” and “Campesino Power” and “Climate Justice Means No Deportation, ” the message came through loud and clear: The climate movement is grassroots, it’s diverse, and it’s as concerned with the health of communities and racial inequities as with the health of the planet.

“Indigenous people and people of color reject any carbon solutions that are revenue-neutral and don’t prioritize the most marginalized,” said activist Sarra Tekola from the stage in Occidental Park. She argued that taking climate change seriously means more than staving off environmental disaster; it is also “the opportunity to right the wrongs of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.”

Tekola wasn’t speaking as a representative of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy—a new coalition of community-of-color organizations, labor unions, faith groups, and businesses—during that speech. But her words resonate with many of its members. On October 6, the Alliance officially announced its plans to put a carbon-tax initiative on the ballot in 2016, one that will explicitly take justice into account.

Details have yet to be released, but it’s clear that the proposal is not revenue-neutral. Rather, it would raise a still-undetermined amount in new revenue for the state, which would be invested in both renewable energy and poor communities most impacted by climate change: for instance, Yakima Valley farm workers out of a job because of drought and wildfire; families without the up-front capital to benefit from Washington’s energy-efficiency rebate programs; Seattle residents who won’t have the resources to relocate or rebuild in the event of a superstorm.

“What we’ve seen in the disasters that are happening is it’s the most impoverished, the people who have less access, who are harmed the most,” says Jill Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green and member of the Alliance’s Steering Committee. Hurricane Katrina made that very clear. And policy, when led by politicians and policymakers, has a way of leaving people of color behind. “Most policies never include racial equity,” says Peter Bloch-Garcia, executive director of the Latino Community Fund and also a member of the Alliance’s Steering Committee. For climate policy and all policies, he says: “It’s about time.”

“Climate change is not just an environmental issue anymore,” adds Aiko Schaefer, coordinator of Communities of Color for Climate Justice.

The Alliance’s announcement comes about six months after Carbon Washington, also a carbon-tax initiative, began gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures to send to the legislature by January. (If the legislature does nothing, it will get punted to the November ballot.) Much of the rhetoric at the Oct. 14 climate march could be seen as aimed directly at Carbon Washington’s effort, speaking to an important divide that has formed among Washington climate activists.

Carbon Washington’s approach is revenue-neutral, specially designed to appeal to a broad political spectrum. “A revenue-neutral approach, where you drop other taxes as much as you raise the tax on carbon, is just more likely to pass in Washington, and nearly everywhere else,” wrote economist and Carbon Washington executive committee member Ramez Naam via e-mail, citing polls that found nearly 70 percent of Americans support a carbon tax in exchange for lowering other taxes.

In short, Carbon Washington is attempting to appease conservatives who might otherwise be skeptical of a carbon tax—let alone talk of righting the wrongs of patriarchy. “My theory of change here is: finesse the left/right divide,” says Carbon Washington executive committee member Joe Ryan. “Create an incentive to use less carbon, but don’t [increase revenue] to the general fund. There are many people who are uncomfortable with that.”

This ideological and political schism has led to some serious tension. Members of the Alliance published several op-eds this summer opposing Carbon Washington (arguing that the proposal “carefully preserves our state’s regressive revenue system” and “justice should be the main meal, not a side dish”). In response, a New York Times op-ed made the case for a bipartisan approach to climate policy. Its author quoted Carbon Washington founder Yoram Bauman, who characterized this kind of opposition from the left as “an unyielding desire to tie everything to bigger government, and a willingness to use race and class as political weapons in order to pursue that desire.”

Members of the Alliance sent Bauman a stern letter in reply: “We call on you to publicly recognize that (1) racial and economic justice are critical issues for any effective climate policy, and (2) communities of color and people of lower incomes have experience, expertise, and leadership essential to the climate movement.” This second point, in fact, is one Alliance members consider crucial: making sure communities of color are involved every step of the way, including the policy-crafting process. “It is as much in the process as it is in the policy,” says Dionne Foster, research and policy analyst for Alliance member Puget Sound Sage. “It’s about engaging the people as well as creating something that actually solves the problem.”

Organizations such as Fuse and the Washington Council of Machinists have sided with the Alliance, citing Bauman’s comments in The New York Times article as a reason to withdraw their support from Carbon Washington. The splinter, some argue, could make it tough to pass any carbon policy at all.

“The conventional wisdom is that having two similar ballot measures on the same topic hurts them both,” says Carbon Washington’s Joe Ryan. “I have heard some stray opinions that they would help each other,” but overall, “that’s not the weight of opinion.”

Amid the blowback, Carbon Washington supporters say they’re thinking about social justice, too: One of their proposal’s key tenets is to fund the Working Families Rebate, a state boost to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which would be the first step away from the state’s regressive tax code since the 1970s. That, they say, is where justice comes in—that, and in cutting carbon in the first place.

“To the extent that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate, reducing carbon emissions disproportionately benefits communities of color,” Ryan says. “We feel like our policy is good for social justice.”

Things have cooled since the summer; the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and Carbon Washington are now meeting regularly. They’ve released a joint statement—a public olive branch, if you will—assuring everyone that the two groups are batting for the same team, and that anyone who wants to put eggs in both baskets should do so (though the recent climate march suggested some feelings are still raw).

“These [two initiatives] are not necessarily exclusive,” says 350 Seattle’s Patrick Mazza. “Both could pass and be harmonized.” While 350 Seattle has officially endorsed Carbon Washington, he says, it will likely endorse the Alliance’s initiative, too. “We don’t regard endorsement of one initiative or one policy design as precluding the other. We’re kind of in an all-of-the-above category.” (The 350 network, he adds, is very explicitly not a climate group: “It’s a climate-justice group.”)

In any case, putting a price on carbon is just one small part of what climate activists say will save us. Here’s another thing everyone agrees on: We should have done something major about climate change years ago.

“I know the urgency, I understand,” says Got Green’s Jill Mangaliman. “Some of my colleagues are also working on the [Carbon Washington] campaign. We’ve had conversations; we’ve had debates. At the end of the day, we just need to create more spaces of dialogue.”

Or, as Yoram Bauman puts it—something that, in spirit, anyway, no one in the movement seems likely to disagree with: “This fight is big, and it needs all of us.”

Sara Bernard writes about environment and education for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at sbernard@seattleweekly.com or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy.

 
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