Washington's carbon tax: a model for change or for future disputes?

A ballot initiative in Washington state would create the first carbon tax in the nation. A coalition from the left is pushing voters to reject it.

Steve Bloom/AP/File
Carbon Washington organizer Ben Silesk (l.) leads supporters delivering signed petitions to the Washington statehouse, part of the effort to put Initiative 732 on the ballot, Oct. 29, 2015.

Voters in four states are casting ballots relevant to climate change on Election Day 2016.

Floridians will weigh in on a ballot initiative with implications for "net metering," by which solar panel owners can sell back excess electricity to utility companies. The initiative has been criticized for duplicitous wording.

In Nevada and Colorado, voters will decide whether to deregulate energy markets and put up new barriers to amending the state constitution by referendum, in what are essentially proxy votes for climate change.

Perhaps the most important measure is an initiative being put to voters in Washington: I-732, which would institute the country’s first ever carbon tax.

If the ballot measure gets a majority of votes, it would still have to be considered by the legislature. But Washington is peculiarly well-suited to this sort of plan, says Phil Wallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who frequently writes about climate change.

"It’s less of a big deal in Washington state than it would be in other places," he tells The Christian Science Monitor. "The whole thing can more honestly be framed as a little change that Washington can make to its tax system that won’t totally shake up the whole economy," he explains. 

"Washington has a ton of hydroelectric power, which is zero carbon, and it’s been very supportive of renewables. So it’s kind of in an unusual position," says Mr. Wallach.

The initiative – which would be a watershed for climate change legislation in the United States – is being opposed by environmentalist, civil-rights, labor and progressive Democratic groups, who are critical of the proposal’s conservative-friendly features.

The initiative may pass anyway – polls late last month show it has the support of 40 percent of Washington’s voters, with 32 percent against and 28 percent undecided – but the conflict seems to underscore how the very definition of progress on the issue differs among environmentalists.

Under I-732, revenues from the carbon tax would offset cuts to the state’s sales tax and tax rebates for working families. Opponents from the left, suspicious of incrementalist approaches to climate change that seek the backing of big business, have demanded that revenues be routed toward other clean-energy initiatives that would benefit low-income communities of color.

“We know how to control and limit pollution,” said Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch, in an interview with In These Times. “We’ve been doing it for forty-plus years under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. This is about a political climate that refuses to regulate industry anymore. If you just do the carbon tax without mandated reductions, you never get to mandated reductions.”

I-732 is modeled after legislation enacted in 2008 in the Canadian province of British Columbia, which has since seen a 5.8 percent drop in emissions. But Ontario bested it with its own plan phasing out coal-fired power plants, points out Mr. Edwards. In the decade following 2005, emissions in that state fell 19 percent.

But with the fraught politics of climate change in the US, opposition from the left has exasperated proponents – including the initiative’s architect, Yoram Bauman, a standup comedian and Ph.D economist, who has become convinced that climate action is more likely to come through the Republican Party.

“Yes, there are challenges on the right – skepticism about climate science and about tax reform – but those are surmountable with time and effort,” Dr. Bauman told the conservative economist N. Gregory Mankiw last year. “The same cannot be said of the challenges on the left: 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.”

Wallach of the Brookings Institution puts it less fulminously.

“The idea that revenues from a carbon tax are all going to be directed toward climate-related spending takes out one of the most politically potent ways of selling a carbon tax to non-environmentalists,” he says. “To my mind, it’s very misguided – having so much confidence that their side should be able to take a whole loaf that you aren’t interested in three quarters of a loaf.”

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