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Why The Left Doesn’t Want A Carbon Tax (Or at Least Not This One)
The battle over a Washington state ballot initiative previews the future of the climate debate.
"Our entire environmental movement has been co-opted by economists," says Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch.
Once the primaries ended, climate change hardly made an appearance in this year’s presidential election. Down-ballot, though, it’s causing a stir in the Pacific Northwest. Come November 8, Washington voters could pass the United States’ first carbon tax via Initiative 732 (I-732). The proposal would leverage a $15 per ton fee on polluters starting in 2017, then scale up to $100 per ton by mid-century.
But the details of the plan—proposed by the upstart green group Carbon Washington (CarbonWA)—have met a chilly reception not just from climate deniers, but from nearly every progressive organization in the state, including the Washington State Labor Council, the state Democratic Party, several major environmental organizations and Congressional candidate Pramila Jayapal. As Washington’s Sierra Club put it, many believe the measure “does not include all that is needed for an equitable climate policy and just transition to a clean energy economy”—and some question whether it would reduce emissions at all.
The fault lines have confounded many, including the editorial board of the Washington Post: Why would the Left oppose I-732 when people like Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben have endorsed a carbon tax in the past? As the Post scolded, “The left’s opposition to a carbon tax shows there’s something deeply wrong with the left.”
The fight over the carbon tax—in deep blue and very green Washington—may offer a preview for what climate politics will look like in the near future, as the question shifts from whether to tackle rising temperatures to how.
“It could do so much more”
“We’re at this more advanced level of climate discourse than a lot of places,” Ben Silesky tells In These Times. Silesky, 26, is the King County Field Manager for CarbonWA, where he started volunteering in 2013. Originally from Seattle, the self-described “Naomi Klein-worshipping environmental lefty” helped found the University of Redlands’ fossil fuel divestment campaign, and had been fascinated by the idea of a carbon tax long before joining CarbonWA. “It could do so much more than blocking an oil train or getting one campus to divest,” Silesky says.
Since joining the group in 2013, Silesky has been one of the key drivers in an effort to contact tens of thousands of voters around the state, first to get I-732 on the ballot and now to help it pass. He says the push has been led largely by other millennials: I-732’s first organizational endorsement, according to Silesky, came from the University of Washington’s divestment campaign.
“If you walk into our office, you probably won’t see anyone over the age of 26. We joke that there weren’t any adults in the room for the first year of this,” he tells In These Times.
If there was an adult there, it might have been Yoram Bauman. While the idea of a carbon tax has been around for decades, I-732 is largely Bauman’s brainchild. A self-styled “stand-up” economist—as in comic, not morally upright—one of his claims to fame has been translating conservative economist Gregory Mankiw’s “10 Principles of Economics” for over 1.2 million Youtube viewers.
Outside of his comedic career, Bauman is a real economist, and very much interested in stopping climate change. Since at least a 1998 book on the subject, he has advocated a revenue-neutral carbon tax, in which a tax on pollution is complemented by tax cuts for families and businesses. Bauman’s idea is that these cuts would both mitigate the carbon tax’s financial burden on consumers and—key to his strategy—woo business-friendly conservatives wary about swelling government coffers.
“I am increasingly convinced,” Bauman told Mankiw last year, “that the path to climate action is 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. 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.”
Bauman crafted I-732 accordingly, and hoped it would be a model that could spread beyond Washington’s relatively progressive bounds: Keep the tax modest, fund Washington’s working families rebate (up to $1,500 for 460,000 low-income households), and slash both the sales tax and the business and occupation tax on manufacturing, which would be a windfall for major Washington-based corporations. Boeing, for instance, could see tax savings of $50 million or more.
Many progressives are now arguing, however, that the tax’s bipartisan flair might also be its fatal flaw. And Bauman’s dismissal of the Left has not helped him change their minds.
I-732 gets off the ground
Edgar Franks is a member of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a broad-based coalition dedicated to climate justice, and the main progressive voice against I-732 in Washington. In particular, he’s an organizer with Front And Centered, a group of over 60 mainly people of color-led social justice groups that plays a role in the Alliance. (On the other end of the political spectrum, a “No on I-732” campaign is being backed by several business organizations).
Like many in the Alliance, his concerns with I-732 are twofold: the process and the policy.
As Vox’s David Roberts observes in his own detailed post on the measure, the Alliance emerged out of the failure of climate legislation at the national and state level in Washington in 2009. Identifying constituencies they thought would be key to widespread buy-in on a new climate plan, Alliance founders cast a wide net, prioritizing labor, green businesses and people of color-led community organizing outfits.
The coalition expanded, but Bauman grew frustrated with its slow pace in producing a policy plan of its own. He and CarbonWA’s board decided to pull the trigger on their own ballot measure: I-732. The Alliance and CarbonWA then began multiple rounds of talks to arrive at a joint initiative, but negotiations collapsed. So in late December 2015, CarbonWA went all-in to get I-732 on the ballot.
Franks described CarbonWA’s path to arriving at their policy as a “go-it-alone kind of thing,” and several of the groups within Front and Centered say their input was ignored in the ballot measure’s drafting process. Exacerbating concerns is the fact that CarbonWA’s staff is almost entirely white, while some of the loudest opposition to I-732 has come from organizations housed in communities of color. “Washington is 80 percent white. It’s hard to get people to take us seriously,” Franks says. One key lesson from the I-732 fight, he argues, is the importance of bringing those already feeling the brunt of climate impacts into ground-floor decision making, “and taking them just as seriously as we would an economist or a climate scientist.”
Who Benefits? Who Decides?
On the policy itself, Alliance groups have taken issue what they see as tax benefits for manufacturers, and a muted impact on emissions. Franks argues that a tax without a strict cap on emissions would just pass costs down to consumers without actually curbing fossil fuel use. Meanwhile, higher fuel prices hit every time a driver goes to fill up at the pump. The “working families tax rebate,” said to ease the blow of rising fuel costs, comes just once a year.
Not only does Franks think a carbon tax is ineffective. He and other Alliance members also believe it harder to pass more ambitious policies down the road. Part of the challenge Franks lays out is that many of the solutions Front and Centered groups have outlined—massive public transportation, food sovereignty, green and affordable housing—involve deeper and more difficult changes than the quick fix offered by some I-732 proponents. “We have to restructure the economy,” Franks says. “You can have a healthy environment or you can have capitalism. You can’t have both.”
The Alliance and several of the organizations choosing not to support I-732 see one of the biggest issues with revenue neutrality as its built-in failure to muster public investment toward either impacted communities or vital infrastructure changes. Virtually every scenario to meet the Paris Agreement requires massive public investment, often from already constrained state budgets. So the Alliance and other groups see I-732’s revenue neutrality as a glaring absence. Their own proposal—not yet as fleshed out as I-732—centers around a firm cap on emissions and a revenue-positive tax, and calls for investing revenue in renewables, resiliency efforts and an “equitable transition for businesses, workers and communities” off of fossil fuels.
In a press call convened by social justice organization Dream Corps about the measure and the wider push to put a price on carbon, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said the I-732 “prescribes solutions on our behalf, by ignoring what we have been calling for for many years,” including green jobs and a just transition away from fossil fuels. She also accused Bauman of “blackwashing,” referencing—in part—his suggestion that aspects of I-732 align with the Movement for Black Lives’ platform.
Supporting I-732, she said, “would be irresponsible … as the work that we do is advocating for black communities to be able to determine the solutions that will impact our future.”
Since the two sides on I-732 parted ways, the terms of the debate have been somewhat confusingly translated out to the rest of the country: Wonks (Bauman and CarbonWA) versus the Left (The Alliance). Franks contends that the framing creates a false opposition between experts and activists. “Even though the other folks might have all their degrees, we’ve been feeling that urgency [of environmental harm] for decades: the forced migration, the breathing in of pesticides, inhaling fumes from the freeway,” he says.
Learning from Canada
But economists themselves also are not necessarily experts on the climate, just as climate scientists aren’t necessarily policy wonks. “A revenue-neutral carbon tax as a means for combatting climate change is very reasonable,” says Michael Mann, Director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, when asked via email. “But the devil is of course in the details, and where the politics really come in is in deciding how the carbon tax gets offset, and whether the net effect is a more regressive or progressive tax structure.”
On that point, the Alliance and CarbonWA are split. Over the last forty years, though, some think an overly economistic strain has infected climate politics. “Our entire environmental movement has been co-opted by economists,” says Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch, one of the national groups lining up against I-732.
A paper he worked on for the group examines the revenue-neutral carbon tax at the center of British Columbia’s 2008 climate plan, passed by a Conservative government and lauded by Bauman. I-732 backers point to their northern neighbors as a carbon tax success story. “What they did in British Columbia has been very successful,” Silesky says, admitting there were ways in which the province’s model could be improved. Still, he told me, “It’s nice to have a real-world example to point to.”
Looking at publicly available data, Edwards found British Columbia’s plan less inspirational. “Before the carbon tax was in effect, the categories of greenhouse gas emissions that would be subject to the tax fell by 0.26 percent annually from 2002 to 2008,” the report states. “But after the tax went into effect, from 2008 to 2014, the taxed greenhouse gas emissions declined by 0.32 percent annually.” Since the tax was implemented, emissions have continued to climb.
Some of this decrease can be attributed to broader trends—the province’s own environment minister estimated that a full two-thirds of the modest emissions reductions between 2007 and 2010 were connected to economic recession. Rising gasoline prices also failed to curb vehicle emissions, as—for many—driving is a necessity rather than a choice. Carbon taxes, the report concludes, “are largely ineffectual, having little or no impact on greenhouse gas pollutants.”
Meanwhile, the tax hasn’t stopped new fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the province.
Simply put, Edwards says, a carbon tax is not a strategy for emissions reduction. “In an anti-regulatory political climate, our fear is that a carbon tax will be passed and folks will say, ‘Okay we’ve fixed our climate problem,’ and sit back. And in 15 or 20 years when it’s too late, they will have figured out that this didn’t work.” That I-732 is being looked to as a model policy for other states only adds to that worry.
In contrast, Ontario’s climate plan prompted a 19 percent drop from 2005 to 2014 as opposed to British Columbia’s 5.8. In large part, they did it by eliminating coal-fired power plants. “We know how to control and limit pollution,” Edwards argues. “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.”
“There’s an easy way out”
Fossil fuel companies tend to agree with him. In what might seem like a baffling move, six major oil companies last year released a statement advocating for a carbon tax in advance of the Paris climate talks. But when corporations like Exxon support a modest revenue-neutral carbon tax they know “that whenever this tax gets implemented, it really has no impact on its production and on their profits,” Edwards says. “Either way the cost trickles down to the consumer.” Exxon might see a boon to its natural gas business if the tax reduces demand for coal, but it would likely hold firmly onto its oil profits.
Like conservatives, Bauman sees bringing fossil fuel companies to the table as key to effective climate policy. Once their industry’s consequences are fairly priced, the thinking goes, the market will sort out their effects on its own. “There’s an opportunity,” he wrote in an open letter to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), “to address [climate change] in a way that will not fundamentally change your business for decades to come.” While coal companies may have a tougher time of it, he told WSPA, “If you play your cards right you will be able to face those competitors as Adam Smith intended, on a level playing field, rather than with one hand tied behind your back because of climate policy.
“There’s a serious risk that [fuel regulations] will fundamentally change your business,” Bauman went on. “Fortunately, there’s an easy way out for you: Support smart climate policies, oppose dumb ones and work to build alliances that will focus on economic efficiency.” In other words, go along with the carbon tax, stave off regulations and carry on as you were.
To keep warming below 2 degrees (a level many in the Global South call incompatible with their survival) 68 percent of known fossil fuel must remain underground. For 1.5 degrees—the high-ambition target set in Paris last year—85 percent need to stay buried. I-732’s flaws are greater than failing to pack a punch. If Bauman is to be believed here, the measure’s founding logic—that business as usual in the oil and gas industry can continue unabated—flies in the face of climate science.
Granted, Silesky is far less of an ideologue than Bauman, and was careful to point out Bauman is not representative of the grassroots push that has been propelling I-732. He sees the tax as less a panacea than a stepping stone. For Silesky and other CarbonWA members working to get their measure passed, the backlash has been confounding: “I’ve had middle schoolers come up to me at tabling events and ask ‘Why is the Sierra Club opposing you?’ ”
“We were really hoping to de-politicize the climate space. … It’s ironic that the opposite happened,” he says.
Part of the confusion around I-732 has to do with the fact that environmentalism’s big tent—home to everyone from John Muir-style conservationists to green tech magnates to communities trying to shut down a leaky coal-fired power plants in their backyards—is bursting at its seams.
In general, entry into environmentalism’s tent requires an understanding that the nonhuman world is important—whether for its own sake or simply because humans depend on it—and that climate change is real and needs to be addressed. Even this broad baseline is at odds with virtually every Republican in Congress, and so the tent hasn’t had to define its goals and priorities too clearly. So while Bauman’s logic for I-732 might be out of whack with climate science, it fits cleanly under the big green umbrella.
As Washington’s greens and progressives are now finding, however, not all climate policy is created equal. One of the most insidious effects of Republicans’ rampant denialism, then, is that it distracts from the kinds of substantive policy debates—raised by I-732—that will only become more pressing as the climate math grows bleaker: What policies actually work, and for whom?
Locally in Washington, clashes around I-732 have opened the door to more collaboration on climate among unlikely actors, who hope to put forth their own ballot measure in the coming years. “For the longest time we’ve always had the mentality [of] reacting to things,” Franks says. “Now we’re doing that as a united front, from different angles. Our next step is coming up with a solid policy.” Several of the groups that have worked against I-732 are planning to do just that in coming months. And whether I-732 passes or not, Silesky says he’s eager to work with the measure’s critics.
The question being faced in the Pacific Northwest is broader than carbon taxes alone. Thanks to 40 years of neoliberal advance, any actually effective policy for taking on climate change remains a political non-starter in the U.S. That CarbonWA is trying to work around those constraints is hard not to empathize with, however flawed its cause célèbre. Unwittingly, though, I-732 might just blow environmentalism’s big tent wide open—and force its residents to choose new sides.
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Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering climate and U.S. politics, and a contributing writer at The Intercept. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.