The news on climate change gets worse and worse. Each of the first six months of 2016 smashed the previous records for being the hottest such month in history, and this July was the hottest ever recorded. With planetary crisis upon us, climate policy advocates cannot afford to fight with each other. But that’s what is happening in one of the most environmentally conscious states in the country, the Evergreen State of Washington. This sad tale holds lessons for everybody as the world grapples with climate change.
Yoram Bauman, a climate advocate and stand-up comedian with a Ph.D in economics, is the founder of CarbonWA, an organization dedicated to passing a carbon tax in Washington. Last year, CarbonWA stunned the environmental community by collecting over 360,000 signatures to get the carbon tax proposal onto the 2016 November ballot. This is a remarkable achievement, as no other state has come close to considering a state carbon tax. Now, this tiny, hand-to-mouth organization has foisted the issue onto Washington voters in a Presidential election year.
But all is not well in Enviro-topia. CarbonWA’s carbon tax ballot initiative, I-732, is not receiving support not only from the expected industry groups, but in a surprising twist, from social justice groups and other environmental groups. Why?
The problem starts with the household economics of a carbon tax. Viewed in isolation, a carbon tax hurts poor people more than rich people, because it raises energy prices, and energy costs make up a larger and less flexible part of a poor household’s budget than a rich one’s. But a carbon tax generates revenues, and those revenues can be used to compensate poor households for the higher energy prices—leaving poor households better off than they are without the carbon tax.
I-732 alleviates its effects on the poor in two ways: it lowers Washington’s regressive sales tax by one percent, and provides a match of up to $1500 of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families. About 75% of I-732 revenues will be spent funding these two budget items.
So why the internecine warfare? Bauman will admit when pressed (as I did) that he might have done better in reaching out to other groups for their input. I-732 is a good policy, and it does for the most part what the social and environmental groups want: reduce emissions and funnel the money back to poor people.
But along with good policy must come good politics. One observer praised I-732, but accused Bauman of “political malpractice.” Lesson number one in climate advocacy: consult with others.
Here is lesson number two: perfect politics cannot become the enemy of good policy. The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy is a network of environmental and social justice groups, most of which declined to endorse I-732 on the grounds that it doesn’t do enough to help poor households. But take a look at what these groups actually want, and their claims fall apart. The Alliance also proposes a carbon tax, but would not lower sales taxes or redirect any money towards vulnerable populations. Their proposal would invest funds in “clean energy, clean and abundant water, and healthy forests,” earmarking 25% of those investments “to benefit disadvantaged communities.”
Exactly what these investments are and how they would help poor people is left unsaid. One Alliance member I talked to said they would pay for solar panels for poor households. I have never heard a poor family say, “if only we had solar panels, life would be so much easier.” The Alliance is a solid network that has practiced good politics, but is guilty of policy malpractice.
What is worse, some of these groups have, out of personal vendetta, unleashed spurious attacks on Bauman and I-732. Some write things like “I-732 kowtows to polluters, disrespects communities of color.” This is not faintly ridiculous.
Another Trumpian accusation is that CarbonWA hired signature-gathering firms that have run into trouble with forging signatures. Actually, CarbonWA hired a group that was employed by a conservative advocacy group, that hired another firm that had forged signatures.
The broader lesson for all of us—not just Washington State voters—is that climate policy is not the place to grind a political axe. Some liberal environmental organizations still see climate change as just another political football, a hypocritical attitude we cannot afford. The Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki said of climate change that “[w]e’re a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.” It is time to recognize that we are getting rather close to that brick wall.
Op-ed by Shi-Ling Hsu; originally run in The Hill
Photo by Erik Mclean from Pexels