As I was walking into my neighborhood Fred Meyer store here in Seattle a few weeks ago, I encountered a young woman with a clipboard. She asked me if I wanted to sign the petition for Initiative 732, sponsored by Carbon Washington.
It’s not that I’m opposed to raising revenue by putting a price on pollution and carbon emissions. Far from it. In 2010 I helped defeat a ballot initiative backed by the oil companies that would have repealed California’s landmark law to combat global warming, including the state’s pioneering cap-and-trade system.
I’ve worked to support various clean energy projects both as an activist and as a staffer for an elected official as well.
That experience, combined with the flaws of I-732, suggests to me that a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the wrong way to solve the climate crisis.
Here are some of the reasons why I won’t sign I-732.
One of the supposed selling points for I-732 is that it is revenue-neutral, meaning that it won’t bring in any money for the State of Washington.
Supposedly, this approach will be appealing to conservatives, because the new tax won’t result in any additional funding for public services.
Why any progressive or environmentalist would think this is somehow a good thing is beyond me. Our state badly needs more revenue to fund the essentials of a 21st century society. We need more money for schools, human services, and for sustainable infrastructure. Revenue neutrality is one of the last things this state needs. Why on earth would we pass up an opportunity to invest in our future?
As we’ll see below, revenue neutrality is also not very convincing to conservatives. But regardless of how the electorate perceives a revenue-neutral proposal, such an idea is not going to help us produce the reductions in carbon dioxide we need.
You often hear that “we have to put a price on carbon dioxide” if we’re going to cut emissions. That’s a necessary step, but it’s not sufficient. Our carbon dioxide emissions aren’t the product of a free market. They’re the product of seventy years of failure to invest in renewable energy infrastructure.
Simply making it more expensive to pollute will not, in and of itself, magically lead to building infrastructure we need to allow people to live more sustainably.
Don’t take my word for it. A recent article in Nature points out that any system to price pollution on its own isn’t sufficient to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other polluting gases. We need more renewable energy, and that is going to require subsidies and other steps to promote the construction of new renewable energy projects. California’s cap-and-trade system is providing that funding. I-732 won’t, because it’s revenue-neutral.
California’s cap-and-trade system is generating at least $2 billion a year that is being plowed into sustainable infrastructure projects, from solar panels to high speed rail. British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon tax, however, provides no such funds.
The Vancouver B.C. metro area was recently forced to ask voters to raise local taxes to provide a badly needed expansion of the region’s rail network. That measure failed, and it’s unclear where the money will come from to pay for a transit expansion that is essential to providing major, long-term pollution reductions. Eventually, B.C. will have picked all the low-hanging fruit of carbon emission reductions. They’ll need significant new infrastructure to go further, but there’s no way to pay for it.
Revenue neutrality is unjust
The basic concept behind I-732 is that if you raise the costs of polluting high enough, the market will somehow magically decide to start building alternatives to infrastructure that relies on burning carbon. The problem with this approach should be obvious: what happens to people in the meantime? What if the market takes its sweet time to build the green infrastructure we need? As much as we want to see a price on pollution, that price should also be economically just.
I-732’s details also suggest that low-income Washingtonians and people of color will be left out of the process and excluded from most of the benefits. That’s the argument that Tony Lee and Carolina Gutierrez made earlier this summer in calling for a more equitable policy than I-732:
As a “revenue neutral” proposal, Initiative 732 (which is collecting signatures) aims to disturb the status quo as little as possible. It redirects most of the revenue generated by its carbon tax as rebates to rich and poor alike, without investing in pollution reduction nor community benefit…
True climate justice looks like transit serving affordable housing, clean energy in low-income neighborhoods, healthy food systems and good locally rooted jobs. It takes an equitable policy, and at a time of great need, that means investments targeted for communities of color and people of lower incomes.
Climate advocates and movements fighting for justice are aligned, but our proven solutions are being held hostage to the fossil fuel industry. Achieving equitable policy requires mobilizing those most impacted by climate change.
Tony and Carolina are absolutely right. Progressives should listen to these voices, rather than chase conservative voters who aren’t likely to vote for I-732 anyway.
Conservatives won’t support it
Despite the many problems of revenue neutrality, backers of I-732 claim that their carbon tax has to be revenue neutral to earn support from conservative voters.
This is a badly misguided view of how right-wing voters think and act. Conservatives aren’t just opposed to spending money to provide essential public services. They’re also opposed to raising additional revenue, period. They vehemently oppose any new tax, or any increase of an existing tax, for any reason. They won’t care that I-732 lowers other taxes, because they believe those other taxes should be cut anyway, and not as part of some political deal benefiting liberals.
David Roberts at Vox recently explained why dreams of a bipartisan coalition for a carbon tax are wrong:
I see this kind of political naiveté among carbon tax supporters quite a bit. A revenue-neutral tax is “politically moot” only if you envision politics as a kind of ideological grid, with certain sweet spots where all of both sides’ criteria are met. It makes sense that every politician “should” support any policy in those sweet spots.
It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a policy checklist but a highly activated, ideological demographic that views Democrats as engaged in a project to fundamentally reshape America along European socialist lines. A coalition that will trust Democratic promises of revenue neutrality about as far as it can throw them. A coalition of which virtually every member has signed a pledge never to support any new tax, ever. (Ezra Klein once asked Grover Norquist about a revenue-neutral carbon tax, actually. Norquist warned that “a Republican Party which creates a new tax would not be long for the world.”)
And it’s a coalition that draws substantial support from companies involved in fossil fuels and suburban sprawl — though, side note: Big oil is less likely to oppose a carbon tax than big coal.
We’ll come back to that final point in a moment.
But the larger point is crucial: conservatives are unlikely to vote for any kind of system to price carbon or other forms of pollution. So why design that system around the desires of people who will never support it in the first place?
Keep in mind that British Columbia’s conservative government, which touts the province’s carbon tax, has not allowed it to keep up with inflation. (As a consequence, B.C.’s emissions have been going up, not down, as the B.C. Sierra Club has pointed out.) Neither has the United Kingdom’s conservative government.
And one of the very first things that Australia’s current conservative government did upon winning power in 2013 was repeal that country’s pollution tax.
I-732 began as a conservative idea
The lack of right-wing support for a carbon tax is particularly ironic given that I-732 was first dreamt up by the Washington Policy Center, a right-wing think tank that has received funding from the State Policy Network, itself funded by the Koch brothers.
In May of 2008, Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center made the case for a carbon tax. In doing so, he explicitly attacked the idea of using government to cut pollution and carbon emissions, and proposed a carbon tax in order to undermine government:
The [cap-and-trade] plan relies on forcing families to make significant lifestyle changes and subsidizes technologies that many are already questioning… The problem with such an approach is that it relies on the supposed ability of government officials to make wise decisions about a number of industries, keep up with the rapid pace of economic development, understand the complex exchanges that occur in the economy, and anticipate the unintended consequences of the decisions of millions of people in Washington.
This is some deeply right-wing stuff: attacking green technology, claiming that efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are “forcing lifestyle changes,” and claiming that government cannot meaningfully help solve the issue – even though California’s cap-and-trade system is working very well.
Although the Washington Policy Center has not endorsed I-732, Todd Myers is on Carbon Washington’s advisory board (in fairness, so are some very progressive people). I-732 still reflects the Washington Policy Center’s basic approach as laid out in 2008: create a carbon tax, cut sales taxes, and keep government out of the process in part by denying our state the revenue it needs to build sustainable, carbon-free infrastructure. There’s no reason why progressives should support a proposal championed by conservatives, especially one this flawed.
I-732 is doomed if it ever gets to the ballot
Given all of the above, it should be no surprise that polls indicate that just 39% of voters support I-732 when read the ballot title.
If I-732 makes it to the ballot, it’s going to go down in flames. That’s not going to help the cause of addressing the climate crisis. There’s a better way.
Cap-and-trade is a better alternative
A cap-and-trade system, like the one proposed by Governor Jay Inslee or the one in operation in California, is a far better solution. California’s cap-and-trade system has been in operation for nearly five years. In that time it’s raised billions of dollars that is helping the state provide green infrastructure that will help people, especially those with low incomes, afford to live a sustainable lifestyle.
Here’s just some of the things that California’s cap-and-trade system has funded:
- High speed rail
- Clean vehicle rebates
- New trains and stations for local rail lines
- Weatherization for low-income homes
- Rooftop solar power for low-income homes
- Electric buses
- Affordable housing
It also has more public support. 61% of California voters rejected the effort to repeal the state’s cap-and-trade initiative. That came at the 2010 election, which was not nearly as favorable for progressive causes as a presidential year will be.
Cap-and-trade is vehemently opposed by the oil industry, which tried in vain to get fuels exempted from the system in California. They claimed that applying cap-and-trade to fuels would cause gas prices to soar.
They were wrong — gas prices were barely impacted.
The oil industry’s main concern is that cap-and-trade creates new revenue that states can use to build infrastructure that allows people to buy less oil. A carbon tax does no such thing. Because it doesn’t pay for new infrastructure, the oil industry sees it as less of a threat to their customer base.
Let’s support cap-and-trade instead
The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy (of which the Northwest Progressive Institute is a member) is currently working on the details of a cap-and-trade initiative.
This summer, they said they would:
… explore possible climate ballot measures with the goal to file and qualify an initiative to the people in 2016. Our priority is to develop a policy that is effective, viable and representative of the diverse breadth of our coalition.
Unfortunately, they’re moving too slowly. While the Alliance debates the exact details of the proposal they plan to put on the ballot, CarbonWA has been busy building a grassroots movement to support I-732. The Alliance hasn’t done that kind of work yet, partly because they don’t have a specific proposal to organize around.
They’ve brought together organizational leaders, but that’s not the same as going out and recruiting rank and file activists and progressives to join a movement to support a specific proposal. CarbonWA is already doing that, earning the loyalty of people who should be supporting cap-and-trade instead but see I-732 as the only pollution pricing game in town.
By the time the Alliance finally decides what they want to put on the ballot, they may find it’s too late – the activist base may already have sided with I-732.
Even if the Alliance is behind the curve, they still have a chance to gain public support. It’s clear that I-732 still isn’t winning over the electorate – even in Seattle. As I was walking out of the store, I noticed that most other customers weren’t stopping to sign the initiative either. No wonder CarbonWA is now paying signature gatherers to try and get onto the ballot.
We desperately need to do more in Washington State to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, particularly by building green infrastructure. I-732 won’t make that happen. I declined to sign it, and I hope others will make the same choice.