clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
i-732 (Javier Zarracina)

Filed under:

The left vs. a carbon tax

The odd, agonizing political battle playing out in Washington state.

This is not an election year in which it is easy to get attention, unless your name rhymes with Gump. Nevertheless, it's worth taking note of a colorful, contentious, and counterintuitive political drama playing out in the top left corner of the country.

It’s a fight happening within the left, and like a great many such fights in US politics these days, it reveals sharp differences over how to make progress in the face of Republican intransigence. In this case, the subject is climate change policy, but the fissures being exposed are relevant to all of left politics in an age of hyperpolarization.

Here’s the situation. There’s a carbon tax on the ballot in Washington, meant not just to put the state on the path to its climate targets but to serve as an example to other states.

The measure, called Initiative 732, isn’t just any carbon tax, either. It’s a big one. It would be the first carbon tax in the US, the biggest in North America, and one of the most ambitious in the world.

And yet the left opposes it. The Democratic Party, community-of-color groups, organized labor, big liberal donors, and even most big environmental groups have come out against it.

Why on Earth would the left oppose the first and biggest carbon tax in the country? How has the climate community in Washington ended up in what one participant calls a "train wreck"? (Others have described it in more, er, colorful terms.)

That turns out to be a complex and ill-fated story, revealing divisions among climate hawks — over who pays, who benefits, and who decides — that will not long stay confined to the West Coast. The future of climate politics is playing out in Washington state, and it is not pretty.

What I-732 would do, and why

Before jumping into the conflict, it helps to understand exactly what I-732 would do. Luckily, it’s pretty simple. It would do four things:

  • Impose a tax on carbon emissions, starting at $15 per ton in 2017, rising to $25 per ton in 2018, and then rising every year thereafter at 3.5 percent plus inflation, topping out at $100 a ton (in 2016 dollars). The tax would reach citizens in the form of a gas tax and a tax collected by electric utilities.
  • Reduce the state sales tax by 1 percentage point.
  • Fund the working families tax rebate (WFTR), which would bump up the federal earned income tax credit to provide up to $1,500 a year for 460,000 low-income households.
  • Eliminate the business and occupation tax on manufacturing.

I-732: a revenue-neutral tax swap (Javier Zarracina)

According to CarbonWA, the group that put it on the ballot, this policy has a number of things going for it.

First is the large, predictable, and steadily rising price on carbon, something climate policy analysts have been advocating for decades as the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions.

Second, it protects low-income families. Reducing the sales tax, in combination with the WFTR, would more than offset the otherwise regressive pocketbook impact of the carbon tax on the lowest-income quintile. It would have a net progressive impact on the state tax code (currently the country’s most regressive).

I-732 protects low-income families (Javier Zarracina)

Third, the elimination of the B&O tax would prevent local manufacturers from leaving the state to escape the carbon tax, thus protecting jobs.

And fourth, because the policy is "revenue neutral" — it returns all the tax revenue as tax cuts, leaving none for the government to spend — it is attractive to fiscal conservatives.

This all comes very close to being the ideal policy from the perspective of a climate economist, which is no coincidence. As we will see, a climate economist wrote it.

But liberal groups in Washington believe that CarbonWA’s claims are misleading and that its policy is fatally incomplete and insufficient. Some of them think it’s worse than incomplete — they think it would set back climate progress. They really, really hate it, perhaps more than can be fully explained through policy disagreements.

To understand the pathos behind the current clash requires a little backstory. The tale really begins in 2009, when ambitious climate legislation failed at both the national and state level. Two sets of people in Washington drew two very different sets of conclusions from those failures, and embarked on two very different paths — paths that would collide to disastrous effect earlier this year.

"We have to totally remake the climate movement"

Let’s start with Washington state’s big environmental groups. Going into 2010, they were a mess, their previous decade’s plans more or less in wreckage.

The coordinated national push for carbon cap-and-trade legislation, which had united virtually every major environmental group in the country, proved fruitless. The bill was dying a slow death in the US Senate.

Meanwhile, similar cap-and-trade legislation in Washington state — which traced back to 2007, when the state’s then-governor, Democrat Christine Gregoire, signed an executive order imposing carbon targets on the state — got caught up in the great right-wing backlash of 2008–2010 and died in the state Senate.

So environmental groups in Washington were left with nothing. They could see that federal climate action was, for the foreseeable future, dead. If there was to be any action on climate, it would be at the state level. And even at the state level, environmental groups simply weren’t powerful enough to do it on their own.

The only way to amass the political power to create change on the scale necessary, they concluded, would be to build a broad, diverse, and enduring political coalition. "We have to totally remake the climate movement," says Gregg Small of the nonprofit group Climate Solutions. "That's the fundamental lesson that we learned."

Alliance For Jobs And Clean Energy
The Alliance for Jobs And Clean Energy, becoming a thing on January 27, 2015.
(The Alliance For Jobs And Clean Energy)

Washington greens were not alone in drawing that conclusion, of course — it is reflected in the national climate movement as well, which has focused in recent years on allying with local and indigenous groups to fight coal plants and fossil fuel pipelines. Climate activism, the thinking goes, can only succeed as a kind of adjunct to more proximate activism focused on more immediate concerns. A broad coalition is the only way forward.

So coalition building is what Washington environmentalists set out to do. They reached out to the three other constituencies they felt would be key: communities of color, labor unions, and climate-friendly businesses.

That began what would become a years-long series of discussions, exploring the possibilities for collaboration and talking through what kind of policy they could all get behind. "We've spent a whole lot of time together," says Becky Kelley, president of the Washington Environmental Council, "coming to understand, at a pretty deep level, each other's interests." It was, by all accounts, an intense, at times difficult, but meaningful process for those involved.

The greens were lucky in their partners. Jeff Johnson, the president of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC), had been working to get labor in the state "on the right side of history" on climate change, as he puts it. The work, which he compares to "trying to steer an ocean liner," culminated in a comprehensive 2015 WSLC resolution on climate and jobs. Labor in Washington state is, rare among state-level labor communities, an active and willing partner in climate discussions.

And Washington’s communities of color have taken on climate change as a core concern. A collection of more than 60 low-income, community-of-color, indigenous, and social justice groups formed an umbrella climate justice organization, Front and Centered, in 2014, behind a set of "principles for climate justice." They were also eager to participate in a coalition.

Public health and business groups joined the discussions as well. This broad informal network eventually became, in January 2015, a formal organization: the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. (It now has six core groups, a steering committee representing a dozen more, and many dozens of groups that have signed on to support.)

Alliance For Jobs And Clean Energy march
Youths marching for the Alliance, October 14, 2015.
(The Alliance For Jobs And Clean Energy)

"I have never been in rooms like the alliance, in terms of the types of people who sit together," says Aiko Schaefer of Front and Centered, who has been working on poverty and social justice campaigns in the state for years. "I've never sat down with business in a collaborative way like that, or environmental organizations. It is a table I've never seen."

The theory of change informing the alliance strategy is clear: Unite the left’s disparate constituencies behind climate action and overwhelm resistance from conservatives and fossil fuel interests. California’s climate successes are the model. (California’s landmark climate bill AB32 passed in 2006 with one Republican vote in the state House and none in the Senate; this year, its even more ambitious successor, SB32, passed the exact same way.)

A carbon tax that could be popular across the political spectrum: British Columbia did it

Yoram Bauman took away a different set of lessons from the failures of 2009-'10.

Bauman is, believe it or not, a "stand-up economist" — that is, a PhD economist who makes a living doing standup comedy about economics — likely the world’s only, and thus almost certainly its best. Here he is presenting a list of the funniest papers in economics:

He has also authored a couple of cartoon introductions to economics, (which, full disclosure, my 12-year-old son read and enjoyed).

Baumann did an internship with Sightline, a progressive policy and research outfit in Washington, in 1997. In 1998, he co-authored a book with Sightline’s founder Alan Durning called Tax Shift, about swapping a tax on carbon for reductions in other taxes. (Foreshadowing!) Then he went to the University of Washington, where he got his PhD in economics in 2003.

Bauman came out of the 2010 mess impatient to take another swing at the ball (a metaphor he uses frequently). If climate change is intensely urgent, he says, then you "push as hard as you can and keep trying."

He saw that the only action likely to happen was at the state level, through the ballot, and that other states badly needed a proven template for what they could do on climate. After all, Washington’s own emissions are not particularly significant in the grand scheme of things. (They are a fifth of California’s.)

states by carbon emissions (Javier Zarracina)

State policy is significant, Bauman reasoned, primarily insofar as it is replicable elsewhere.

And here is where he parted with the alliance. From his perspective, if Washington were to have a model policy that could be adopted by other states — including states less liberal than Washington, which includes most US states — then it could not, almost by definition, move forward only by uniting the left. The left simply isn’t powerful enough to secure victory on its own in most states.

Rather than attempting to please every left constituency, Bauman believes, climate policy should sidestep perennial battles over, say, the size of government. It should surgically target climate change and attempt nothing else. That way, everyone who cares about climate change, including many conservatives, can get behind the same policy, without getting caught up in partisan gridlock.

The way to do that, Bauman concluded, is with a revenue-neutral tax swap. It cuts carbon without growing the size of government, so there’s no way for conservatives to cast it as tax-and-spend liberalism.

That was the theory of change informing CarbonWA, the group Bauman founded: Craft a policy that can unite people who care about climate change, from the left and the right. Bipartisanship is the only route forward.

The model for Bauman was British Columbia, where a revenue-neutral carbon tax passed in 2008. It rose to $30 a ton in 2012, but has been frozen there by the provincial government. Its effectiveness is hotly debated, but — key for Bauman’s purposes — it remains fairly popular across the political spectrum.

Tellingly, there were no examples of US climate bipartisanship for Bauman to draw on.

Talks between Washington's environmental groups reach a standoff

As the years went by, Bauman and other climate hawks watched impatiently as the climate movement suffered failure after failure. Environmental groups did not put a climate measure on the ballot in 2012 (they didn’t want to put the election of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee at risk). In 2014, the Alliance focused its energy on helping Democrats retake majorities in the state legislature. That effort failed. In 2015, it focused its energy on helping Inslee get his Carbon Pollution Accountability Act through the Washington legislature. That effort also failed. As of early 2015, it was unclear whether they intended to run a ballot measure in 2016.

In July 2014, Joe Ryan, a longtime Washington activist — at one point president of the Washington Environmental Council, which is now part of the alliance — became co-chair of CarbonWA and connected it with some funders. After a quickly aborted effort in 2014, the group began fundraising and investigating tax-swap ballot language for a 2016 effort.

As early as November 2014, representatives from CarbonWA and the big environmental groups were meeting, discussing their respective plans. They struggled to find common ground. Then, against the urging of many in the environmental community, Bauman and Ryan ran an op-ed in the Seattle Times in January 2015, arguing for a tax swap and vowing to run a ballot measure in 2016. They said such a measure could "inspire bipartisan action in the rest of North America and around the world."

Talks between the two sides in early 2015 yielded no movement. And so it was a standoff; 2015 slid by, the alliance working on its coalition and CarbonWA, beginning on Earth Day, trying to gather the 300,000 signatures necessary to get on the 2016 ballot.

I-732 canvassers
Earnest youngs, canvassing for I-732.
(Yes On 732)

From the alliance’s perspective, CarbonWA was being piloted by arrogant wonks who disdained the need for coalition building and had formed something of a cult of personality around Bauman.

From CarbonWA’s perspective, the alliance represented "an incredibly risk-averse group that couldn't get their act together," as Bauman puts it. Now they were asking CarbonWA to drop its carefully crafted proposal in favor of an amorphous and uncertain alternative.

A desperate pitch for compromise

No one in the alliance expected CarbonWA to succeed, with its threadbare budget and lack of big institutional backers. So its attitude toward the effort ranged from neglect to disdain. According to Bauman and Ryan, alliance representatives badmouthed CarbonWA to other progressive groups, warning them away. One set of talking points sent to Alliance groups, written by Alliance director Lisa MacLean*, hinted darkly that Bauman and CarbonWA were dupes for oil companies.

CarbonWA’s fortunes were not helped when, in September 2015, Bauman made impolitic comments to conservative economist Greg Mankiw, who quoted him in a piece on carbon taxes in the New York Times:

I am increasingly convinced 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.

For obvious reasons, this did not endear Bauman to alliance groups. They viewed his hopes for Republican cooperation as naive and his characterization of social justice groups as insulting.

Bauman says CarbonWA at its best has had a positive message: Support us if you want, support the alliance if you want; we’re all doing our best. But "there were cases where I personally went off message instead of keeping that positive vision," he admits. "Raising the temperature doesn’t help." But the damage was done.

Nonetheless, toward the end of 2015 it became clear that, defying all expectations, CarbonWA would gather the 300,000 signatures it needed to get on the ballot. Lots of Washington voters, primed by years of activist campaigns against oil trains and coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest, were ready for climate action. And CarbonWA’s grassroots volunteers "were dogged," Small concedes. "They worked their tails off. They deserve credit for that."

This caused considerable alarm on the alliance side. (One member characterized it to me, off the record, as "holy shit, this might happen!") By then, the alliance had decided that it wanted to run a ballot measure of its own in 2016. Finally, in late November and December 2015, there was a series of come-to-Jesus meetings between the two camps.

The alliance had done a number of polls throughout the year on the two initiatives (I-732 and its still-somewhat-sketchy alternative). They showed that I-732 started with support in the low 40s, with large numbers undecided. "You can’t win a ballot measure with numbers like that," Small says, "even if you have a massive bank account."

The polling seemed to show that the alliance’s proposal had a slim chance, I-732 had very little chance, and on the ballot side by side, they would both get killed.

So in December, the alliance made its somewhat desperate final pitch to CarbonWA: Throw out your 350,000 signatures and join our effort. We guarantee we will run a ballot initiative. We have a broad coalition and major donors lined up. We will move your way on policy, to find some kind of hybrid we can all live with. Together we can win. If you make a run at this alone, without serious funding behind you, you will get crushed and the opportunity for climate action in 2016 will be squandered.

Alliance younglings
Alliance younglings, hoping for a cooler future.
(The Alliance For Jobs And Clean Energy)

CarbonWA’s fateful December 2015 decision

The December meetings were, by all accounts, emotionally bruising for all involved. Tempers were frayed, everyone was exhausted, and by the end, Christmas was only a few days away.

Washington has two routes to the ballot; one requires signatures by January 1, the other not until July. CarbonWA pursued the first, the alliance the second. And so "the timing killed us on this thing," says Kelley. CarbonWA was preparing to turn in its signatures before the alliance had even started to gather theirs, or written final ballot language.

"It's like we had this whole novel," says Bauman, "and they had a sketch." CarbonWA was being asked to trust not just that the polling on the alliance measure was good but that it would get better when ballot language was nailed down; not just that the policy had moved its way but that it would continue to do so after January 1, when CarbonWA’s 350,000 signatures became worthless.

"That's a pretty high bar," says Bauman.

He took the decision to his board and his grassroots supporters. In a remarkable blog post on December 21, he laid out the situation:

  • The CarbonWA executive committee "is now convinced that there will be a swing at the ball in 2016 no matter what." In other words, they believed the alliance would run a measure.
  • I-732 starts out with low support and many undecideds, which is grim for a ballot measure, as it takes a great deal of money to sway undecideds to "yes." Voters who make their decision only when voting tend to default to "no" on ballot measures. Meanwhile, "it is clear that the alternative approach significantly out-polls I-732."
  • I-732’s strategy is premised on drawing support from conservatives and business groups. It hasn’t panned out. Reaction from the business community "has been tepid at best," and though considerable effort has gone to wooing conservatives, "we don’t have much to show for it."

In short, Bauman seemed to concede that the alliance’s political critique of I-732 was on target. It polled poorly and drew little of the hoped-for bipartisan support.

And so, Bauman concluded, CarbonWA faced a fateful decision: Throw away 350,000 signatures and join with the Alliance, or continue forward on a path that appeared, politically at least, ill-fated.

Two days later, CarbonWA decided: Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.

To those who had read Bauman’s previous blog post — including everyone at the alliance — the decision was astounding. How can you publicly concede that your effort is doomed and keep going anyway?

The decision was made by CarbonWA’s executive committee, not by Bauman alone, though he did vote to reject the alliance’s offer. There was a range of opinion among committee members, but in the end, they deemed the policy gaps that remained between CarbonWA and the alliance too large to close in the time available. And many of them, Bauman’s post notwithstanding, did not trust the alliance to keep its word.

So CarbonWA submitted its signatures to the state, ensuring that I-732 would be on the November 2016 ballot.

i-732 supporters
Millennials for I-732.
Yes On 732

Why was the alliance so alarmed by CarbonWA’s proposal? And why were the two sides unable to come together? It all comes back to the revenue.

The fight over carbon tax revenue

Washington has no personal income tax. It relies on sales taxes, which hit low-income residents hardest. Consequently, it has the most regressive tax system of any state in the nation. The state legislature has a long and ignominious history of underfunding its priorities, to the point that it is currently under a court order from the state Supreme Court to find new education funding. (It still hasn’t.)

It is no surprise, then, that the alliance’s core objection to I-732 is that it is revenue-neutral — it surrenders all that precious revenue, which is so hard to come by in Washington. That, more than anything else, explains why alliance groups are not supporting it.

Their calculus is simple: Properly dealing with climate change requires lots of investment, and if a price on carbon doesn’t fund that investment, what will? Given how difficult it is to raise revenue in the state, the idea, often put forward by I-732 proponents, that greens can simply find that money somewhere else is, in the alliance’s view, naive to the point of malice.

Labor groups want investments to incentivize green manufacturing and retrain displaced workers. Communities of color and low-income groups want "a share of the money to go to the infrastructure that we need to weather climate change," says Schaefer, like affordable housing near public transit. Tax cuts and credits "are not going help the folks I work with go out and buy a [Nissan] Leaf," Schaefer says.

And of course, everyone wants money to spur clean energy. Even voters — even, it turns out, Republican voters — prefer a system that spends carbon revenue on carbon reduction to one that returns it as dividends or tax cuts. (I wrote about this phenomenon here.)

What’s more, spending the revenue allows you to put spending (which people like) at the top of the ballot initiative, rather than a tax (which people don’t like). I-732’s ballot title, the language voters will first encounter, begins as follows: "Initiative Measure No. 732 concerns taxes."

"People like clean energy. If the framing is about clean energy, we can win almost anything," says Small. "If the framing is about putting a price on your lifestyle to make it more expensive, we are not likely to win that battle."

This was always the alliance’s message to CarbonWA: Revenue neutrality loses you the left coalition, and with it the big left funders, and doesn’t gain you any Republicans. It also saddles you with shitty ballot language.

Who decides what a carbon tax should do for low-income communities and communities of color?

Behind the revenue question are deeper and more sensitive questions: What’s good for low-income communities? What’s good for communities of color and labor?

And most importantly, who decides?

It is this last question, often unspoken but never distant, that most poisoned relations between the alliance and CarbonWA.

CarbonWA believes that its approach is better for low-income communities and communities of color than the alliance alternative of reinvesting the revenue. The sustainability think tank Sightline argues that because of demographic differences, California’s approach of "targeting clean-energy investments geographically" won’t work as well in Washington to reach people in need. The sales tax cut plus WFTR approach will help more people.

Alliance groups disagree. But their objections to I-732 also run deeper.

From the point of view of, say, communities of color, there was one group of environmentalists working with them through the painstaking process of coming to consensus in an area of policy that was new to many of them. Those environmentalists were considering new perspectives and reconsidering long-held policy preferences — doing the work.

Another group of environmentalists was presenting them with a fait accompli, asking them to sign on to a policy that a roomful of mostly white wonks had determined was in their best interests.

Bauman and others involved in CarbonWA object to this characterization. "We did our best to reach out to anyone that we could possibly find," Bauman says. "Did we reach out to everybody? No, in large part because we were mostly a volunteer grassroots organization. There were some groups we just didn't know about. There were some groups that we tried to talk to and were blocked by some folks who are now criticizing us for not talking to social justice groups."

Bauman mentions outreach to the Washington Budget and Policy Center, a progressive policy shop. "Do they count as a social justice group? Yes. Do they count as a community-of-color group, maybe not." Bauman shrugs. "Depends on your definition, I suppose." (WBPC is a source of excellent analysis, but, no, it does not count as a community-of-color group.)

Either way, state social justice groups did not feel consulted. "Rather than engaging with these communities," wrote Rich Stolz and De'Sean Quinn of environmental justice group OneAmerica, "I-732 organizers patronized and ignored concerns raised by these stakeholders."

White people who work with other white people — and the white people who write about them — tend to slough off this critique. What matters, they insist, is the effect of the policy, not the historical accident of who wrote it down.

Bauman points to a set of policy demands posted by Black Lives Matter. Among them: "shift from sales taxes to taxing externalities such as environmental damage." Also: "Expand the earned income tax credit."

"Well," Bauman says, "we did both those things, right?"

But communities of color want more than for mostly white environmental groups to take their welfare into account. Most of all, affected groups want some say in what constitutes their welfare. "All of us want to be included from the beginning of any decision," says Schaefer. "We don't want to be told after the fact, ‘Hey, by the way, we decided all this stuff for you.’"

This tension within the climate movement has played out most recently in California, where low-income and minority groups have won substantial changes to the state’s climate law, ensuring that a larger portion of cap-and-trade revenue is directed to their communities. Given demographic changes sweeping the country — and climate funders’ newfound attention to building up the capacity of those groups — those tensions are unlikely to remain confined to the West Coast.

What the alliance would like instead

So what policy does the alliance prefer?

It does not now have, and has never had, a written ballot measure. This is something Bauman emphasizes again and again. The alliance has broad principles and a range of policy proposals (of varying specificity). But it has never produced final ballot language that can be polled, or that CarbonWA could have evaluated in deciding whether to abandon its signatures.

The principles are simple enough. This is from a recent open letter:

We believe successful climate policy must: reduce emissions quickly and decisively; attract broad support; put a fee on emissions and reinvest that revenue in clean energy; and reinvest those revenues in communities that are most directly affected by climate change, air pollution, and carbon fees.

The specifics are somewhat murkier. There’s a cap on carbon, and a fee on carbon, and "compliance flexibility for major emitters," but it’s not clear how all those pieces work together.

After its 2016 efforts fell apart, the alliance returned to the policy drawing board to take advantage of the extra time — a more fleshed-out policy is said to be forthcoming.

Alliance climate plan: cap and invest (Javier Zarracina)

There is, however, a plan for how to spend the revenue.

The alliance argument against revenue neutrality is simply that a price on carbon alone won’t guarantee that clean energy flourishes, that at-risk communities are protected from the effects of climate change, or that workers are sheltered from the economic upheaval of a clean-energy transition.

As Johnson puts it, "just because a transition is going to happen, it doesn't mean justice will follow." To secure justice, you need investment.

The first priority for investment would be "worker, impacted community, and vulnerable industry support." In practice, that means funding the working families tax rebate, worker transition programs, and assistance to energy-intensive, trade-exposed (EITE) industries.

The revenue remaining would be divided between clean energy (70 percent), clean water (20 percent), and healthy forests (10 percent). Within that pool, 25 percent of investments must benefit impacted communities and 10 percent must go directly into those communities. (This is very similar to current California policy.)

Alliance: how to spend the revenue (Javier Zarracina)

Equity, to the alliance, means acknowledging that low-income communities don’t just need tax relief; they need resilient infrastructure, access to jobs, and training in the clean energy economy. Union workers don’t just need tax relief; they need transition assistance, retraining, and protection for the industries in which many of their members work.

If it is to have any sustained political power, "the climate movement is going to be an environmental justice movement," Kelley says. "It just is. Other folks can buy their way out of it long enough."

Mo’ coalition partners, mo’ problems?

From CarbonWA’s perspective, this starts to seem a bit crazy. The alliance is trying to impose a large tax, reduce inequity, protect unions, fund worker transition, clean up local pollution, and subsidize clean energy, all in a stroke, piling political problems atop political problems, guaranteeing massive, multi-sectoral opposition.

Bauman points out that I-732 has aroused very little active fossil fuel opposition (I-732’s opposition campaign has raised $260,000 to CarbonWA’s $1 million), which he attributes to the policy’s elegance and fairness. (He makes his pitch to the Western States Petroleum Association here.)

The alternative explanation for oil companies’ quiescence is that they think I-732 is going to fail without any help from them. That’s what alliance members believe — that the ship is going to sink on its own, precisely because CarbonWA has too few allies.

The left in Washington state has largely abandoned I-732

When CarbonWA vowed to go forward in December 2015, the alliance briefly considered running a competing climate initiative, or some other kind of clean energy initiative, on the 2016 ballot, but concluded that there wasn’t enough time to pull anything together. So, after some fraught internal discussions, it decided to take no official position on I-732. Its constituent groups were free to take whatever position they wanted.

The state Democratic Party, Fuse (a large statewide progressive group), the Washington State Labor Council, and Front and Centered have come out in opposition.

At an Alliance event, Dionne Foster, then of Puget Sound Sage, speaking as Jeff Johnson of the WSLC looks on.
At an Alliance event, Dionne Foster, then of Puget Sound Sage, speaks as Jeff Johnson of the WSLC looks on.
(The Alliance For Jobs And Clean Energy)

Most big environmental groups in the state, under intense pressure from multiple directions, are taking an approach I’ve dubbed "performative non-support," which means neutrality accompanied by thousands of words of explanation. (See: 350 Seattle**, Sierra Club, Climate Solutions.) The sole exception is the Washington chapter of the Audubon Society, whose Gail Gatton explains that her members "felt like we did not have time to sit this one out." You might say they’ve taken a "bird in the hand" approach.

The alliance is convinced that I-732 will lose in November, thus refuting CarbonWA’s theory of change, showing yet again that environmentalists can’t win when they go it alone on climate. They just hope it isn’t a blowout that tarnishes climate action in the state for a generation. "In the best of all possible worlds," Johnson says, "I-732 goes down, but not by much."

Currently, polls show I-732 narrowly losing (the latest Ellway poll has 34 percent supporting, 37 percent opposed), with little remaining time to change the trajectory. The betting money is on I-732 going down to defeat.

The post-732 political landscape is murky

Bauman remains bewildered that more people haven’t come forward to support a policy so many climate hawks have spent years advocating. He says CarbonWA has enough money to get to the finish line, but that "we're at a point where additional funding is very high value-adding. The vast majority of people are undecided about I-732 — a lot of people haven't heard of it. Money would help with outreach to those voters."

At this point, CarbonWA’s theory of change has shifted, or at least narrowed. There’s a lot less talk about economic efficiency and bipartisanship. "Our entire campaign plan is to connect with voters who care about climate change and tell them that 732 is about climate change," Bauman says. "If we do that, then we win."

i-732 doorknocking
A youth, door knocking for I-732.
(Yes On I-732)

What will happen if it loses? That too is a subject of contention.

"We're identifying climate voters," Ryan says. He estimates that CarbonWA has made direct contact with a million voters, either face to face or through personal phone calls. And Bauman notes that the process of getting I-732 on the ballot has revealed several significant lessons about the ins and outs of state carbon policy. They both believe that I-732 has increased momentum toward future climate action, whether or not it passes in November.

Members of the alliance have a gloomier assessment. "The times in which you lose and it sets you back are greater than the times you lose and get set forward," Schaefer says.

"This situation we're in right now cannot be the best situation," says Kelley. "It's miserable."

Meanwhile, feelings remain raw. Both sides have piquant things to say about the other. Both insinuated that the political consultants on the opposite side were shady. And though both expressed willingness to work together in the future, it is clear that they remain far apart on matters deeper than just policy detail.

Several members of the alliance told me they intend to put a climate measure on the ballot in 2018. That means "we devote major resources," Johnson says, "starting in 2017 all the way up to the election in 2018." The goal, says Stolz, is to build "a policy, communications, and ground game strong enough to take on entrenched fossil fuel interests."

It promises to be dire political terrain — an off-year election, in which liberal constituencies typically vote in much lower numbers, coupled with what is likely to be a ferocious backlash against Hillary Clinton’s presidency.

When 2018 rolls around, Bauman says, "we'll see if they save the world or if their approach turns out to be challenging also."

Washington’s climate growing pains are familiar — they are America’s

Though they have played out on a fairly small stage, with relatively little national notice, the struggles over climate policy in Washington presage larger national battles.

When Bauman told Mankiw that liberals are the primary hindrance to climate action, he was simply wrong. The key obstacle to climate policy in the US is the Republican Party, whose climate science denial and lockstep opposition to climate action are unique among major political parties in the developed world. Theories of political change must begin with that unpleasant reality and address what to do about it.

Can the right climate policy cut through hyperpolarization and garner substantial bipartisan support? If it can’t, could a united left, willing to invest carbon revenues in a variety of allied constituencies, overwhelm Republican opposition? What voice do those most affected by climate change have in developing policy? What is the best way to protect their interests, and who defines what their interests are?

All these questions will only become more contentious at the national level. The "keep it in the ground" trend in climate activism crucially involves the participation and influence of social justice groups. Increasingly vocal and organized advocacy from low-income and minority groups has solidified opposition to cap and trade among many climate groups, especially younger ones. The next attempt to develop ambitious, national climate legislation — if such an opportunity arises again — is sure to be shaped by the movement’s increasingly powerful commitment to climate justice.

In short, the left is under pressure from its social justice wing to make climate part of a larger progressive movement. At the same time, it is still under pressure from centrists and wonks to make climate policy bipartisan, and that pressure will only grow more intense when the number of Republican lawmakers willing to negotiate on climate grows (from its current tiny handful).

In Washington, these diametrically opposed pressures have taken the form of revenue-neutral versus revenue-positive carbon prices — but the same tension has the potential to bedevil virtually any climate policy discussion.

In the end, it may be that both ballot measures, CarbonWA’s in 2016 and the alliance’s in 2018, lose — that neither theory of change proves out. It may be that sufficient climate action will have to wait until the American right has a serious change of heart on climate change. No one who follows public opinion polls can be sanguine at that prospect.

One way or another, Washington voters will help answer some of these questions, or at least provide some clues, in November. If establishment liberals in the state ensure I-732’s defeat through benign neglect, it could turn out to be an opportunity squandered ... or a messy prelude to something better. Their reputation, and a great deal more, is at stake.

* Clarification: The piece originally said "a political consultant" wrote the talking points. The author, Lisa MacLean, has worked as a political consultant, but at the time she was also director of the Alliance.

** Correction: The piece originally said "" had come out in non-support of I-732. In fact it was not the national organization but 350 Seattle, the local chapter, that non-supported.

Down to Earth

We know how to save these beloved endangered whales. Yet we’re mindlessly killing them.


Why you probably shouldn’t blow up a pipeline


Carmakers pumped the brakes on hybrid cars too soon

View all stories in Climate

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.