Carbon on the Ballot: Is This the Most Important Issue of the Year?

November 5, 2018


Washington state has a carbon tax on the ballot. It’s been a bumpy, aggravating, but maybe illuminating ride to get here.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee is a dark horse Presidential candidate, who might get a lot more visible if this passes. Leading in the only poll that I saw. (below)

Long piece, I’ve excerpted, but it demonstrates the complexity of making things simple.


Just two years ago, Washingtonians rejected a “carbon tax” initiative, which would have initially charged businesses $25 per metric ton of emissions before ramping up over time. The debate over I-732 drove a rift between progressives. While it found some high-profile supporters, from Leonardo DiCaprio to the state’s Audubon Society, it was criticized by activist author Naomi Klein, the Washington Sierra Club chapter, and the Seattle Times editorial board.

This time around, the coalition behind the Protect Washington Act is taking a different tack, rebranding the effort to put a price on carbon and bringing the climate conversation to the streets in hopes of generating broad support. The initiative proposes a “fee on pollution” that would put a $15 charge on each metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted in Washington starting in 2020. That charge would rise by $2 plus inflation every year until the state meets its climate goals, which include cutting its carbon footprint 36 percent below 2005 levels by 2035. The revenue raised would go toward investing in clean energy; protecting the air, water, and forests; and helping vulnerable communities prepare for wildfires and sea-level rise.

The groups behind the proposal are “hands-down the most diverse coalition I’ve seen in 20 years,” says Aiko Schaefer, director of Front and Centered — an alliance of organizations advocating for low-income residents and people of color that played a key role in drafting the new initiative.

Experts agree that putting a price on carbon is one of the best ways for a government to act on climate change. And public opinion polls have found that almost 70 percent of Washington voters — including a solid majority of the state’s Republicans — would support a measure to regulate carbon pollution. But no one has successfully managed to craft a policy that satisfies the whole environmental movement or the electorate.

There are reasons to believe that this time could be different. If I-1631 passes, it could serve as a template for an approach that could one day go national, state by state. Groups in Oregon and in Northeastern states have reached out to the initiative’s backers, inspired by Washington’s approach. And you can bet that they — and others — will be watching this fall.

In the days following the elections in November 2016, as progressives grappled with the idea of President-elect Donald Trump, an opinion research firm interviewed Washington voters to find out what went wrong with I-732. It’s not that the electorate didn’t want action on climate change — 67 percent said they did. But almost 30 percent of respondentssaid they saw the carbon tax as “too flawed” and wanted to wait for a better measure to come along.

That failed initiative was criticized for its lack of ambition. Opponents argued that it wouldn’t curb emissions, improve Washington’s budget mess, or provide much help to the state’s vulnerable populations. Others complained that groups representing low-income communities and people of color had been left out of the drafting process. Proponents acknowledged all the criticism, but countered that these weren’t good enough reasons for environmentalists to thwart an ambitious effort to tackle climate change.

Earlier this year, State Senator Reuven Carlyle, who represents neighborhoods in Northwest Seattle, proposed a carbon tax that would fund clean energy initiatives and assist low-income residents by offsetting their utility bills. But the bill lost the support of groups like the Quinault Indian Nation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Matthew Randazzo, the Quinault’s policy representative, says the tribe thought that its needs weren’t addressed. In the end, Carlyle’s bill fell short of passing on March 1.

Governor Jay Inslee says he’s more optimistic that his state’s voters will approve the Protect Washington Act than the state legislature will manage to pass a carbon tax. “Frequently, the public transforms faster than politicians recognize,” he tells Grist. “I think that is true on climate change.”

Inslee has endorsed the initiative but says that if it fails, the legislature will be back working on another carbon-pricing proposal next session. “One way or another,” the governor explains, “we’re going to get this job done.”

Legislative failures have stymied efforts to curb carbon emissions across the country for more than a decade. An attempt to pass a national cap-and-trade program, the Waxman-Markey bill, passed a Democrat-controlled House in 2009, then failed to come up for a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Its demise ushered in a “bleak time” for environmentalists, says Gregg Small, executive director of the Climate Solutions, a Pacific Northwest-based clean energy nonprofit.

Although California and Northeastern states have since figured out how to get regional cap-and-trade schemes rolling, Washington and Oregon — two reliably progressive states — have struck out. (Earlier this year, Oregon ditched its plans for a cap-and-trade program.) The blame falls not on the usual suspects — Big Oil, Big Coal, Keyser Söze — but on environmentalists themselves. The groups working to protect mountains and rivers, promote climate action, and advance social justice often disagree about how things should be done.

Small says that after some post-Waxman-Markey soul-searching, Washington’s climate groups realized the issue: Their makeup was too white and white-collar to build the sort of support needed to pass ambitious legislation. So they began to reach out to grassroots organizations around the state to form a broader coalition that could wield more political power.

“This went from relatively a small handful of predominantly white-led environmental organizations,” Small says, “to a table of shared power and decision-making between labor and environmental organizations and communities of color.”

The ultimate goal wasn’t just to develop relationships with these communities and get their votes on the ballot. It was to create climate legislation that filled in the gaps of previous bills, benefiting the widest swath of people possible and representing voices that often get ignored. The thinking was that such a measure could be bulletproof against attacks from the left — and as a result, more likely to win over blue voters in Washington.

This new coalition started work on crafting legislation in late 2014. First, it looked south, borrowing lessons from California’s cap-and-trade program, which went into effect more than a decade ago. Although that bill, AB-32, passed with bipartisan support in 2006, grassroots advocates opposed it, arguing that it wouldn’t decrease pollution in low-income areas and communities of color.

A couple years after the program went into effect, that criticism looked prescient. Emissions had risen in some parts of California where air quality was already bad, says Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. That put people at even greater risk for asthma and cancer. California has since introduced legislation addressing local pollution problems, thanks largely to a growing number of Latinos from those polluted neighborhoods winning seats in the California State Assembly.

Seeing what happened in California, Washington groups working on the proposal that would become the Protect Washington Act sought to bake justice into their climate-legislation recipe, starting the conversation with communities that suffer the most from carbon emissions. A unique mishmash of businesses, labor unions, faith communities, environmental organizations, public health groups, and communities of color fused in January 2015 into a formal organization committed to developing the then-budding climate policy: the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. Members say they hope to show other states that a grassroots coalition is the way to win.

Today, the larger environmental movement is in the bumpy process of shifting from a campaign led mainly by white people to one that prioritizes diversity. This undertaking of building relationships and trust between communities takes a long time, as environmental advocates in Washington have discovered in their nearly decade-long quest to put forward a carbon-pricing measure that disparate groups could support.

While people like Matthew Randazzo and Aiko Schaefer laud the Protect Washington Act, there are some who think it has plenty of flaws. Critics like the duo behind the 2016 carbon-tax proposal, economist Yoram Bauman and environmental activist Joe Ryan, argue that the proposal’s approach is likely to turn off Republicans, independents, and anyone who instinctively votes against taxes.

“What’s fundamentally important about climate action in Washington state, which accounts for about 0.3 percent of global carbon emissions, is increasing the odds of climate action in Washington, D.C.,” the pair wrote in the Seattle Times in April. “That will happen under the Alliance’s unite-the-left approach only if the Democrats can build a national majority considerably stronger than the one currently led by the Republicans. That’s a tall order.”

Small of Climate Solutions says that “uniting the left” is not a fair characterization of the Alliance for Clean Jobs and Energy. While he admits it is “fundamentally an alignment of progressive voices,” the broader coalition behind the initiative includes representatives people from across the political spectrum, including businesses.

“I think it’s a very well balanced proposal,” says Governor Inslee, siding with Small. “It’s moderate in the sense that it responds to the needs of a broad spectrum of people, not one ideology or one ethnic group.”


Washington voters have long grappled with the idea of taxing carbon polluters. But new data indicates that support may have finally reached a tipping point: A recent statewide Crosscut/Elway Poll shows that Initiative 1631, which would charge a fee to some Washington carbon emitters, could succeed where past efforts have failed.

The poll, which was conducted from Oct. 5-9, found 50 percent approval among the 400 registered voters polled. Thirty-six percent said that they were against the initiative, while 14 percent were undecided. The poll has a margin of error of 5 points.

Support for the initiative is greater than what I-732, a similar carbon initiative, was receiving at this point two years ago. Unlike the current carbon fee initiative, that 2016 ballot measure had been criticized by many left-leaning groups and communities of color, managing only 40 percent support in that October’s Elway poll. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Stuart Elway, the president of Elway Research, told the Seattle Times that any measure polling with less than 50 percent in October is likely to fail. He was right: The measure ended up receiving 41 percent of the vote with all ballots counted.

3 Responses to “Carbon on the Ballot: Is This the Most Important Issue of the Year?”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Let’s hope this one makes it. Watching the progress of carbon tax proposals is almost as much fun as watching paint dry.

  2. Corey Says:

    It’s telling that “Cliff Mass, Ph.D., atmospheric sciences expert” wrote the rebuttal to Measure 1631 in the election pamphlet, citing “no real accountability or likelihood of significantly reducing greenhouse gases” as well as it’s “disproportionate burden” on Washington’s poorest. As if the SLR that promises to swallow Shell’s coastal refinery up here won’t disproportionately burden the poorest here and abroad.

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    Shot down in flames. Fine with me.


    Can we talk about why we need to increase RE subsidies?

    About how we will determine if they are high enough?

    About why ending them is insane?

    About why ending them is pound-foolish?

    About why intelligently targeted government subsidies and government mandates are inherently more effective than relying on market forces?

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