Washington state’s environmental community continues to fail to escape the tangle of its own political allegiances, even when it comes to addressing a crisis that, by its own account, presents an existential threat to humanity’s existence.
Late last month, the state Democratic Party moved to oppose I-732, a carbon-pricing initiative on November’s ballot that’s backed by Carbon Washington. The internal machinations leading up to the party’s decision to oppose the measure likely are the stuff of backroom intrigue, but the political dynamics are pretty clear.
Three separate but related pillars of the Washington Democratic establishment – labor unions, civil rights activists and social progressives – have loudly rejected the notion that a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be implemented without harming the state’s poor. These factions further maintain that such a tax would harm minorities, specifically.
Neither of these claims has much empirical support. Washington’s tax system already is the most regressive in the nation and I-732 actually would reduce the burdens of those on the lower rungs of the income ladder. The concerns are further belied by fiscal analysis from the state’s Department of Revenue that concluded I-732 actually is revenue-negative.
But that’s precisely the point. The concern isn’t actually that poorer Washingtonians would be made to pay more, but that anyone would be allowed to pay less. For some on the left, the idea that fewer tax dollars might flow into public coffers is anathema. Ultimately, their calls for “climate justice” are nothing more than poorly disguised pleas for centrally planned redistribution to certain interest groups’ pockets.
A group with the misleadingly anodyne moniker the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy announced in October 2015 that it intends to “direct investments to accelerate the transition to clean energy and reduce the impacts of global warming pollution on the people, industries and lands hardest hit by climate impacts.” What that means, specifically, is anybody’s guess. The Alliance has yet to offer a concrete vision of how it plans to divvy up the spoils, but such things take time.
Economically literate environmentalists, like those with CarbonWA, can see the shortcomings of such an approach, but have only just begun to grapple with the fact that the priorities of their traditional allies on the left are, in many cases, outcomes other than a carbon-free future. CarbonWA correctly surmises that support from the right will be needed to pass the initiative but, as some left-wing detractors also have noticed, that support has yet to materialize.
In its effort to build a coalition to support I-732, CarbonWA has, in the words of director Yoram Bauman, “tried very hard to get support from conservatives for I-732, but we don’t have much to show for it despite offering a simple, efficient, market-based, revenue-neutral policy.”
So far as the group’s “efforts” are concerned, that claim may well be correct. But effort is a poor substitute for meaningful engagement. For our part, R Street spent quite some time making the conservative case for a carbon tax in Washington and elsewhere. CarbonWA hasn’t shown itself to be terribly interested in the kinds of arguments groups like ours make. At least, not nearly as interested as they have been in collaborating with a rock star.
Sometimes, the best ideas – even the most “simple, efficient, market-based” ideas – can be subverted by simple mismanagement. CarbonWA’s lukewarm reception on the right is its own doing. It says it wants free-market allies, but it appears that’s true only so long as they aren’t actually free market. This is a symptom of its struggle to accept that its proposal, as it stands, will not enjoy a favorable reception on the left, either.
Now that the state Democratic Party has turned its back on I-732, perhaps CarbonWA will actually commit itself working across the aisle. That work could start as soon as today, as I-732 will be the subject of a public hearing in Olympia in front of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee.