Fixing the Climate: Lawmakers Won't Do It. Will Voters?

After inaction by the legislature, an effort has emerged to put a climate fix on the ballot. Why aren’t all greens into it?

This past legislative session, Washington state lawmakers brought the world just a little bit closer to environmental apocalypse when they stymied policy that would have capped the state’s carbon emissions. But in the wake of legislative failure, a grassroots citizens’ initiative is scrambling to put carbon pricing on the state ballot in November 2016.

That campaign, called Carbon Washington, is the brainchild of self-styled “stand-up economist” Yoram Bauman. His proposal is simpler and more politically moderate than state Democrats’ stalled cap-and-trade plan. Carbon Washington would institute a straight tax on carbon-producing fossil fuels, plus tax rebates for folks who need them. Right now, Carbon Washington is a long shot, but Bauman says they’re on track to gather enough signatures to make the ballot by the end of the year.

If it succeeds, Carbon Washington could become a political snowball, gathering money and support as it rolls toward Election Day 2016.

While there’s little doubt that human-driven global warming is real and substantial, its severity is still in our collective hands to decide. Whether our grandchildren will live in a Mad Max-style hellscape depends on how quickly policy-makers around the world can ratchet down the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane.

In January, both chambers of the Washington legislature began to consider a proposal by Gov. Jay Inslee to create a “cap-and-trade” system that would have limited greenhouse emissions among major polluters like paper plants and oil refineries—anyone spewing out at least 25,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. The “cap” in the proposal would have capped the total amount of CO2 they could collectively produce; the “trade” would have allowed those major polluters to buy and sell CO2 emission rights within that overall capped volume. The intention is that companies that can easily lower their CO2 emissions will do so, and then sell their emission rights for profit to a higher-polluting company.

This approach is similar to ones in California and Quebec, according to state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who sponsored the legislation in the House of Representatives. “It wasn’t going to be brand-new” but rather modeled on and compatible with existing policies, says Fitzgibbon, who represents Vashon Island, West Seattle, White Center, and Burien.

The plan ultimately went nowhere. Inslee blamed oil-monied Republicans for blocking the proposal, which is partially true. Yet some moderate rural Democrats also objected, worrying that either it would screw up negotiations over the $16.1 billion transportation package (which ultimately did pass) or that constituent businesses in their districts would suffer.

Enter Carbon Washington with a carbon-tax plan that Bauman describes as the “relief pitcher” for Inslee’s cap-and-trade plan. Both proposals would accomplish essentially the same goals . But whereas cap-and-trade places a ceiling on the total emissions allowable to polluters, Carbon Washington’s straight tax would reduce the demand for emissions among polluters by making it more expensive, which would push companies toward greener alternatives.

“They’re kind of two ways of getting at the same thing,” says Bauman, who helped create the carbon tax that’s been in place in British Columbia since 2008. He describes cap-and-trade as “an oddly shaped carbon tax.”

The tax would be revenue-neutral, meaning that extra money raised through the carbon tax would be balanced by tax cuts elsewhere. Specifically, the carbon tax would pay for a 1 percent cut in Washington’s regressive sales tax, a tax cut to manufacturers, and a bonus check for lower-income earners. (This last, the Working Families Tax Rebate, is a state-level tax mechanism created in 2008 but never funded. It piggybacks on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Both are paid by the government to the bottom 40 percent of earners via their tax returns.)

In other words, Carbon Washington would establish different taxes but not more taxes. Major polluters would pay more, and individual earners, consumers, and manufacturers would pay less. Bauman hopes that the tax’s revenue neutrality will help it appeal to Republicans and businesses.

But that same neutrality is already opposed by some left-leaning social-justice advocates, including Puget Sound Sage’s Rebecca Saldana and One America’s Rich Stolz. In a Crosscut editorial last month, they argued that the revenue neutrality of Carbon Washington’s proposal means it does not do enough for marginalized communities most harmed by climate change: “For example, those most likely to experience higher rates

of heat-related illness in Washington state are farm workers—a group that is overwhelmingly Latino. Carbon Washington’s proposal makes no effort to address this reality because, for instance, funding Spanish-language training to help workers identify symptoms would eliminate the proposal’s revenue neutrality.”

Advocacy journalist Patrick Mazza has reported that Carbon Washington is also unpopular among established environmental groups like Climate Solutions (which Mazza co-founded) because it’s too risky politically. “The initiative could lose,” he writes, “and lose big, dragging down Jay Inslee’s 2016 re-election effort. . . . This has the inside baseball players particularly worried.”

Climate Solutions’ KC Golden responds: “This is an honest disagreement about strategy . . . A carbon tax is good climate policy. There’s no argument about that. All economists agree on it.” But good policy means nothing, he says, unless it can win at the statehouse or the ballot. “We are not zealots about policy design,” he says. “We’re zealots about results.”

Bauman characterizes these criticisms as “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Whether Carbon Washington will be able to parlay their grassroots campaign into state law next year will depend partly on whether they can convince people like Saldana and Stolz and players like Climate Solutions to get on board. For Climate Solutions, Golden says he doesn’t know whether that’s possible.

For his part, Rep. Fitzgibbon says he’ll support Carbon Washington if it becomes the only serious contender for state climate policy next year. It might be hard to get some state Democrats excited about a revenue-neutral proposal, he says, but “if Carbon Washington ends up the only proposal on the table, then I’m for that, for sure.”

Washington has already taken some small steps to promote carbon alternatives, such as creating a sales-tax exemption for small solar panels. But Fitzgibbon acknowledges that this is the policy version of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. “We can do as much sector by sector as we want,” he says, “but we need a price on carbon in order to adequately reduce emissions over time.”

Hence the need for comprehensive carbon policy, says Fitzgibbon. “It’s kind of like Whack-a-Mole if you go after each sector on its own.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of One America's executive director. It is Rich Stolz.

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