Why I decline to sign CarbonWA's I-732
Why I decline to sign CarbonWA's I-732

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.

I refused.

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 In 2010 I helped defeat a bal­lot ini­tia­tive backed by the oil com­pa­nies that would have repealed Cal­i­for­ni­a’s land­mark law to com­bat glob­al warm­ing, includ­ing the state’s pio­neer­ing cap-and-trade system.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.

It’s rev­enue-neu­tral

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.

Adjacent posts

8 replies on “Why I decline to sign I‑732”

  1. Don’t let the per­fect be the ene­my of the good, I say. If rev­enue neu­tral­i­ty is the cost of get­ting a strong price on car­bon, you’re still win­ning. And fam­i­lies are going to need the tax cut to off­set the high­er cost of liv­ing cre­at­ed by the car­bon tax.

    Get cli­mate wins now rather than hold out for the “per­fect” solu­tion which might nev­er come.

  2. Renew­ables are good, but con­ser­va­tion is bet­ter. The North­west Pow­er and Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil’s 5 year plan (Sev­enth Pow­er Plan) to meet most new demand by cost-effec­tive con­ser­va­tion. All new demand was met this way in the last plan. Renew­ables only show up at a lat­er date (about when planned coal plant retire­ments take place) because they are more expen­sive, espe­cial­ly in cap­i­tal costs, than conservation

  3. Voltaire’s quote about per­fect being the ene­my of good (enough) is very use­ful in many situations…an obses­sive child, a OCD co- work­er, etc but one must be care­ful using it ad hoc in the pub­lic pol­i­cy are­na. There are count­less exam­ples of that sen­ti­ment being used to con­sid­er, even pass, worth­less leg­is­la­tion which not only does­n’t accom­plish the pri­ma­ry goal but, worse, gives the false sense that some­thing was done AND allows oppo­nents to appear to be doing some­thing while actu­al­ly doing noth­ing. And, the issue is then “off the table” for years to come because “its done”.

  4. Hard to know where to begin with such an inco­her­ent argument:

    1. I‑732 is bad, because con­ser­v­a­tives won’t sup­port it — but it’s real­ly bad because one of its prin­ci­pal local sup­port­ers is a promi­nent Wash­ing­ton conservative.…

    2. I‑732 is bad, and does­n’t do enough for social jus­tice because it would only pro­vide $200 mil­lion in low-income assis­tance through an annu­al rebate of up to $1,500 to 400,000 work­ing fam­i­lies, but Inslee’s cap-and trade pro­pos­al (which would have pro­vid­ed $143 mil­lion in low-income assis­tance and next to noth­ing in its sec­ond ver­sion) is good…

    3. Con­ser­v­a­tives will nev­er vote for any­thing involv­ing a tax hike, there­fore we should def­i­nite­ly have an ini­tia­tive that focus­es on rais­ing tax­es to fund social ser­vices and renew­ables, like the Gov­er­nor’s pro­pos­al to raise anoth­er $1.3 bil­lion in state rev­enue through cap and trade…

    I could go on, but I think the mem­bers and sup­port­ers of the Alliance who are busy crit­i­ciz­ing I‑732 how­ev­er they can ought to be wor­ry­ing more about the Alliance’s prob­lems, and what those prob­lems might have to do with the big tent coali­tion, big donor focused, email heavy, leg­is­la­ture and lob­by­ist ori­ent­ed work that the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions in it have been spend­ing their time and ener­gy on.

    For sev­er­al years, Car­bon WA has been urg­ing this coali­tion to com­mit to run­ning a car­bon pric­ing ini­tia­tive of some kind or oth­er. If they had, I‑732’s sup­port­ers would be col­lect­ing sig­na­tures for them, or get­ting ready to. Instead, they’ve spent their time and ener­gy sup­port­ing a leg­isla­tive effort that’s gone nowhere, and which every­body well informed knew would go nowhere. They’ve done very poor­ly strate­gi­cal­ly about car­bon pric­ing, and the oil trains, and the low car­bon fuel stan­dard. They’ve failed to put for­ward any real­is­tic polit­i­cal alter­na­tive for reach­ing the admirable goals they’re pro­claim­ing. It’s too bad some of them are now work­ing to keep I‑732 from try­ing to suc­ceed through a dif­fer­ent, grass­roots, approach.

  5. Sor­ry you don’t yet have the per­fect tax pro­pos­al. Put on your think­ing cap and trade it for a cor­po­rate income tax. In the mean­time I am con­tin­u­ing to gath­er sig­na­tures for I732. Both What­com Coun­ty and 40th dis­trict Dems have endorsed it.We know how to stick it to oil and cut­ting the sales tax by a pen­ny will get votes across the polit­i­cal spectrum.

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