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.

Kate AronoffNovember 3, 2016

Windmills above a farm in southeastern Washington—the state's climate politics have been nowhere near as tranquil. (Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

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.

"Our entire environmental movement has been co-opted by economists," says Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch.

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 Voxs 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‑732pre­scribes 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.

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.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH