Why Washington State's Carbon Tax Measure Is a False Promise for Climate Justice
When it comes to proposed climate solutions like Initiative 732, we must be sure that our sense of urgency does not fuel bad policy
1. Urgency is not an excuse to get it wrong
The I-732 campaign was built on, and still runs on, the politics of urgency without the policy substance of getting something done. First, it was an excuse for crafting the measure in isolation, a white male economist telling people of color we’re "using race and class as political weapons." Now urgency is used as an excuse to vote for a measure the backers themselves acknowledged is deeply flawed. They almost bailed on it when they had a chance, but got caught in different economics conundrum, sunk costs and the warm affirmation of good-old-boys talking only to each other. Washington voters must not follow this misguided path.
For over a year, I’ve been mansplained by I-732 backers, most who live so far from the front lines of climate change they have no idea what real urgency feels like. As a Queer Filipino growing up working class in the US next to a polluted highway and a steel factory—someone who has been on the front lines of fossil fuel pollution, who has loved ones and family in the Philippines, and who has seen first-hand how increasing storms and flooding have shattered lives, and who organizes many other people like me—I know all too well the devastation that fossil fuel economy and climate change can cause. For real, you don’t have to convince me. Effective and equitable climate action is not a game to me, it’s not a "theory" to be proven or disproven; it is about survival for me and my community. Right now. But the reality is that I-732 will only cause harm to communities like mine.
2. Adding a buck to the price of gas will do nothing to reduce climate change without investing the revenue in clean, equitable communities.
"Revenue-neutral" carbon pricing was a scheme built for 1986 when we could cross our fingers and hope a slowly rising price for carbon would transition our economy off fossil fuels. But in 2016 we have years, not decades, before we’ve maxed out our global carbon budget to stay below a 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature. I-732 would contribute virtually nothing to Washington’s share. By 2040, analysis shows, it would raise the cost of electricity around 7 percent and price of gas around 11 percent to just $4.40 a gallon. We had gas prices like that in 2012; it was hardly the low-carbon transportation future we’re looking for. We shouldn’t expect any different this time around.
In fact, in British Columbia, the model for the Washington proposal, greenhouse gas emissions went up all while two thirds of carbon revenues now support corporate tax cuts. You can explain it away, but that is a fact. An effective carbon pricing policy, at a minimum, must drive overall emissions down—"revenue-neutral" carbon pricing does not. Climate change is not a horseshoes and hand-grenades situation, we need substantive action not misdirection.
3. I-732’s "revenue-neutral" tax-cuts approach to carbon pricing is a step in the wrong direction and would be a devastating precedent for global climate action
Sending the world a signal that "revenue-neutral" carbon pricing is our best hope for climate action would be a death wish for this planet. In burning through well over a billion dollars of carbon revenue each year, I-732 spends millions on corporate tax cuts, perhaps $50 million dollars to Boeing alone. If others follow, trillions globally could go toward tax breaks, when what is really needed is trillions invested in clean and affordable energy, transportation and housing.
There is no magical pot of money to make these large investments happen—carbon revenues are our best shot. But I-732 would set a harmful precedent by short-changing ambitious climate action. It’s no wonder that the fossil fuel industry has not opposed I-732. In fact, Exxon supports the revenue-neutral approach, even while the industry attempted to squash an investment oriented approach in California (and lost). I-732 short-changes critical investments at a time when we need to significantly ramp-up the fight to save our climate.
4. It Does Nothing to Create A Just Transition to a Cleaner Economy
A tax rebate provides no new solutions for workers who need to enter clean energy jobs, for a mother that wants to catch a bus to work, or for a business that wants to invest in a green building. We will not be bought by cheap tricks.
Creating a just transition for workers, for frontline communities, and creating low-carbon infrastructure is not just a moral obligation, it’s a tactical obligation for so called "climate hawks." We will never get to more ambitious climate solutions if we don’t support the people who are most harmed by fossil fuels and the people most impacted by the transition. Instead, if we take care of communities and workers everyone will benefit.
5. I-732 wants to be tax reform, but carbon revenues aren’t the relief we’ve been looking for
Washington State desperately needs tax reform, and that means an income tax. We all know it. Swapping one regressive tax for another is not "progressive tax reform." Trying to confound climate action with tax policy is a recipe for disaster for both people with lower incomes and the planet. Carbon revenues must decline over time and putting support for low income families on a narrow and declining source of revenue only sets us up for disaster in the long run.
Of course it’s ironic that I-732 supporters claim tax reform at the same time they create a giant hole in the state budget. The Washington State Office of Financial Management (OFM) published their findings that “during the first six fiscal years, state General Fund revenue would decrease by a net amount of $797.2 million.” No entity is better equipped to make these projections than the state itself, despite I-732 supporters and their buddy’s attempts to discredit the bad news. This massive state budget hole will hurt Black, Brown, and poor communities hardest.
6. That’s why most people who care deeply about the climate and communities don’t support I-732
Van Jones, Naomi Klein, Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, the Sierra Club, the Washington State Labor Council, The Children’s Alliance, the Washington State Democratic Party, OneAmerica, Puget Sound Sage, the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition—none of them support I-732.
Moreover, editorial boards across the state, including four members of the Stranger Election Control Board, the Tacoma News Tribune, the Columbian, the Yakima Herald Republic, and influential sources like the Progressive Voters Guide—they all oppose I-732 because it won’t effectively reduce climate change, it supports corporations over communities, and there are better options available. Go to www.dontbeneutral.org to learn more.
7. We can do better
There is a better way: let’s put a price on carbon and invest the money in green jobs, clean energy, and the communities hit first and worst by fossil fuels. California has already done this with great success and the idea is moving forward in legislation in New York too. We can do the same in Washington. It will take a broad coalition to win, but that is what we have been building both in communities of color and with allies from across sectors. A No vote on I-732 is a demonstration of our commitment to the world that we won’t be fooled by false promises. We need a Just Transition and effective climate action.
© 2016 The Stranger