Initiative 732 on Washington’s ballot this year is a revenue-neutral tax on carbon pollution, offset by other tax reductions. It would make Washington the first state in the US to tax carbon, which climate policy experts agree is essential in addressing a climate crisis growing worse by the day. And it reduces some of the taxes that make Washington state’s tax system the most regressive in the country. I-732 is meant to create model climate policy that can be adopted in other states around the country.
What’s not to like, right? As it turns out, plenty — at least among some quarters. And not necessarily the quarters you’d expect.
I-732 has been extremely controversial, and has created fissures and animosity within the climate action community specifically. The largest coalition of climate action groups in the state, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, is not supporting it, and some of its constituent groups are actively opposing it (see “Argument Against” in Washington State Voters Pamphlet).
Does this seem confusing? Yes. It is. It’s complicated, and the complications are important to pay attention to for anyone seeking to advance the best possible climate policy in the future.
The current divide has a long and complicated backstory, detailed in Vox by David Roberts, “The Left vs. a Carbon Tax.”
Climate policy efforts have not fared well in the Evergreen State, Roberts notes. “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.”
On one hand, we had climate groups reaching out to build a large progressive coalition that includes labor, communities of color, climate-friendly businesses, indigenous leaders, and social justice groups. On the other, some policy-oriented folks led by Yoram Bauman thought a left-leaning approach was not a model that could be replicated throughout the country. Bauman founded CarbonWA to craft a “revenue-neutral” approach they thought would also be more politically neutral and gain more bipartisan support, modeled partly after the carbon tax in British Columbia.
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. …
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 [Joe] 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.
Thus, I-732 was born. Through a remarkable grassroots effort of mostly volunteers, I-732 gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot (a rarity among citizen initiatives) and is now roughly a toss-up in the polls, all without broader support from environmental and progressive groups.
Those groups offer a variety of criticisms, including concerns that a carbon cap would be better than a carbon tax, that it hadn’t properly included key stakeholders in the drafting process, and that it didn’t invest in renewable energy development or assistance to impacted workers and communities. Other concerns include that it might actually lose money for a state budget already struggling to cover basic services like education (i.e., revenue-negative instead of revenue-neutral), and that it gives an unintentional tax windfall to Boeing.
Front and Centered (an environmental coalition led by communities of color) faults CarbonWA for not creating “an inclusive campaign” with ongoing “engagement and oversight by lower income communities and communities of color.” OneAmerica says that I-732 “was formed without meaningful input from communities of color or low-income communities” and so represents merely “white, middle class reform.” The Washington State Labor Council argues: “No worker or community should be left behind in this economic transformation.”
Sightline Institute—a Northwest green policy think tank—published a detailed response to the criticisms leveled at I-732 in early August: “Weighing the Critiques of CarbonWA’s I-732.” After lengthy analysis, Sightline authors offer this response to critics: “Taken on whole, for us at Sightline, and judged exclusively on the basis of policy, not politics or political strategy, the policy’s flaws are cause for concern but are dwarfed by I-732’s potential benefits.”
Assessing overall impacts of I-732, the Sightline piece concludes:
I-732 would launch Washington to a position of global leadership on climate action. By implementing a pollution price, rising steadily for four decades and keeping pace with inflation thereafter, I-732 would reorient Washington’s economy away from fossil fuels and toward low-carbon options. The price would be simple to administer and would cover most of the state’s pollution. By reducing Washington’s regressive state sales tax and funding tax credits for working families, I-732 would make the state tax code more progressive.
On the other hand, as we previously noted, I-732 would give an unfortunate windfall to Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers. It wouldn’t do enough to protect and boost the interests of all low-income Washingtonians or to help the hardest-hit Washingtonians thrive in a clean energy economy.
Front and Centered published a response to Sightline a couple weeks later (“Why I-732 is a False Promise: Climate Justice Requires Putting Money Where Your Mouth Is“). After their own lengthy analysis of the effects of I-732 compared to a policy that truly centers social and racial justice, they conclude:
Sightline and other proponents of I-732 acknowledge the climate benefits of investing in urban planning and sustainability solutions, such as those discussed above. But, after agreeing on the necessity for these measures, they are quick to assert that “I-732 does nothing to preclude Washington from investing other public funds in the clean energy transition,” and that “carbon tax revenue need not fund them all.”
We find this call for additional policies and programs hard to reconcile with Sightline’s own evaluation of our regressive tax structure, which forms the crux of their analysis in favor of I-732 on behalf of low-income Washingtonians: if our upside-down tax structure is burdensome enough on those with the lowest incomes to render tax relief a valid use of carbon pricing revenue, how can we justify an additional tax or fee to pay for solutions?
To do both is duplicative and therefore excessive, and it’s also highly unlikely to happen (see: Washington’s failed attempts to fund education). Technically, Sightline is correct that nothing in the text of I-732 prohibits other, more meaningful progress on climate change, but the text of I-732 is not the only inhibitor of such progress that worries us.
At Front and Centered we do not believe that we will have endless opportunities to get something as comprehensive as carbon pricing right. We owe it to our communities to get it right the first time.
The debate over I-732 reveals divisions within the climate action community that will not end after November 8. On one side are social and racial justice advocates who recognize that the response to the climate crisis requires a huge transformation of a fossil-fuel based economy into one powered by renewable energy, and that this transformation offers an opportunity to address many of the injustices in the current system, instead of simply replicating the same injustices with new technologies.
On the other side are those who say we’ve waited too long for a perfect solution, that the planet is approaching climate catastrophe while we work through our coalition processes, that physics is non-negotiable, that an imperfect solution is better than no solution at all, and that I-732 is merely one piece of a much larger puzzle with other solutions that can come later.
It’s a tough call. We can wish we had a different proposal before us, but now we are faced with the choice of voting Yes or No on this one.
Everyone will come to their own conclusions, and I know people on both sides of this divide that I respect greatly. As for me, I share the concerns of climate justice advocates. I wish they had put forward an alternate proposal that made the investments they call for. But that didn’t happen. They say it might happen in 2018 or 2020. As someone who’s been waiting anxiously for meaningful climate action since the 1980s, I don’t think we can keep waiting. I-732 doesn’t need to do everything — it needs to be one piece of a larger puzzle that includes investing in clean energy development and assistance to impacted communities. (For example, transit investments are one thing often cited as needed, but we have the chance to vote in the largest transit package ever in our region with Sound Transit Proposition 1. No carbon tax funding required.) I just don’t see how voting down the first carbon tax in the US helps advance climate action. So I’m voting Yes, and will continue to work with climate justice advocates for the other things we need.
As noted, many others come to different conclusions. In addition to the (highly recommended) Front and Centered piece cited above, you can find arguments against I-732 in the Progressive Voters Guide, this Stranger article (although the Stranger officially endorsed it, four news writers oppose it), the Sierra Club, and the Washington State Labor Council.