In response to my previous post, in which I voiced my strong support for I-732, I’ve heard back from several friends who echoed and applauded my position. I’ve also heard from three respected friends who have voted against, or are considering voting against the initiative.
This is the WA state tax swap ballot initiative that Sightline Institute has declared “would give Washington the continent’s, if not the world’s, most potent, persistent, and comprehensive incentive to move swiftly beyond dirty fossil fuels and to a carbon-free future.”
It’s an initiative that has the support of over 50 climate scientists at UW, as well as numerous economists.
So why would some of my climate change concerned friends consider voting against this initiative? Allow me to address the concerns my friends raised with me.
Argument # One is that a recent report coming out of British Columbia has shown in the ten years of having implemented a carbon tax, emission have actually gone up in the province.
The “recent report” was not referenced to a source, so I performed a quick online search. I found a December 2015 report by the Carbon Tax Center, British Columbia’s Carbon Tax: By the Numbers. This report found that “The 12.9% decrease in British Columbia’s per capita emissions in 2008-2013 compared to 2000-2007 was three-and-a-half times as pronounced as the 3.7% per capita decline for the rest of Canada. This suggests that the carbon tax caused emissions in the province to be appreciably less than they would have been, without the carbon tax.”
British Columbia’s Carbon Tax By the Numbers
Note that the chart above provides not only the change in emissions in BC after the tax went into effect, but puts their numbers in context, comparing to the rest of Canada, and also giving us emissions per capita, AND per GDP.
A caveat in the report tells us that “GHG emissions increased in British Columbia in 2012 and again in 2013, not just in absolute terms but also per capita. This suggests that the carbon tax needs to resume its annual increments (the last increase was in 2012; its bite has since been eroded by inflation) if emissions are to begin again their downward track.”
This means not that emissions were increasing beyond the pre-tax levels, but, as the other chart here makes clear, that the downward trajectory had reversed course and was beginning to creep up again. Note the reason: The BC tax was frozen at 2012 levels. The proposed initiative for WA state does not have this defect – see below.
After more digging online, I think I found the report my friend was referring to. The report above was prepared by an organization biased in favor of the carbon tax approach. This second report, by Food and Water Watch, has a bias against market based solutions to climate change. You can find their report, “The British Columbia Carbon Tax: A Failed Market Based Solution to Climate Change,” here. This report skews the numbers a bit by ignoring the dramatic drop in emissions that occurred during the first 6 months of the tax, because it was not a full year, and because they attribute the decline to the recession rather than the carbon tax. So it comes down to what period of time is measured, as they admit: “It largely depends when the change is measured: The taxed emissions decline was more than 10 percent from the 2004 peak to 2012, but that includes many falling years before the carbon tax was enacted; the decline was 2.2 percent from 2008 to 2014, but the tax was in effect only for the second half of 2008.”
In addition, this second report does not give us the context against the rest of Canada, nor the per capita and per GDP numbers.
I’ll admit that I haven’t spent a lot of time comparing the validity claims of the two contrasting reports, but the links are there for those who want to dive deep. What does stand out to me is that the first report (“By the Numbers“) gives us a long trend comparison between BC and the other Canadian provinces, and I think this mitigates other factors such as the recession and is a more robust and fairer overall report.
However, there are others much more skilled at analyzing data than I, and they devote much more time and resources – we’re lucky to have the Sightline Institute in the Pacific Northwest for this purpose.
Like the “By the Numbers” report, Sightline agrees that the real weakness of the BC tax is that it was frozen in 2012. In contrast, according to Sightline, the CarbonWA plan of “setting the price’s rising trajectory all the way to 2059 would vault Washington to the head of the North American pack on climate leadership. Other North American carbon prices are not yet high enough nor sustained enough to achieve climate-stabilizing pollution reductions…I-732 would give Washington the continent’s, if not the world’s, most potent, persistent, and comprehensive incentive to move swiftly beyond dirty fossil fuels and to a carbon-free future.”
“…Unlike the British Columbia carbon tax
, which froze its price in 2012 pending further legislative action, I-732’s tax would continue increasing by 3.5 percent plus inflation every year until 2059 and by the inflation rate thereafter. This price trajectory sends a clear signal that clean energy is the smart choice in the Evergreen State for the rest of the century.”
The second argument from my friends is in two parts: a) oil and gas companies are supporting this initiative because it would give tax breaks to corporations and instead (b) will put the burden of a carbon tax on the low income working class (and the rest of the public consumers).
a) I have found no evidence that oil and gas companies are supporting I-732. Again, according to Sightline, the tax “covers pollution from burning fossil fuels, including gasoline, diesel, aircraft fuels, refinery and industrial operations, natural gas, and coal or natural gas burned in power plants in-state, and in plants out-of-state when they deliver electricity to Washington homes and businesses.”
b) Will the tax unfairly burden low income Washington residents? No. It actually makes the WA state tax system less regressive and more progressive, and has provisions to benefit those of lower income. It does this by reducing sales tax by 1%, and provides a Working Family Tax Rebate of up to $1500 to low income families. It also lowers the B&O Tax on Manufacturing so that manufacturing jobs will not be lost. Here is yet another quote from Sightline:
“I-732 hews closely to this principle [of mitigating costs to communities with lower incomes], yielding the biggest gain in tax fairness in Washington in nearly four decades, with thousand-dollar net benefits for hundreds of thousands of low-income families. I-732 does nothing procedural to increase the influence of low-income families on decision making. It does, however, put most of them ahead financially. Indeed, has any reform in the last decade, aside from the Affordable Care Act, increased many low-income working families’ annual income in Washington by more than $1,000 apiece in a single stroke?”
If you’re still unsure, read the whole meticulous analysis by Sightline (fyi, they refute the supposed “budget hole” that I-732 would create):
has a good overview response to many of the other objections raised to I-732, here: Why I-732 is a Win-Win
Are We Going to Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good?
You might want to check out the conversation Thom Hartman
had with Vien Truong
, representing opposition to I-732. Hear the perspective of the ‘No’ campaign, along with Hartman’s own reflections, i.e. Does It Have to Be Perfect?
On that score (does it have to be perfect?), blogger John Michael Greer
has a very trenchant critique of climate change activism
as a whole, partially attributing it’s failure to gain traction to 4 points he calls 1) piggybacking, 2) the partisan trap, 3) purity politics, and 4) pandering to the priviledged.
1) Piggybacking: “This is the insistence that any movement for social change has to make room on its agenda for all the other currently popular movements for social change, and has to divert some of its time, labor, and resources to each of these other movements.” The ‘No on I-732’ campaign is guilty of this charge. Many Washington Sate environmentalists actually oppose the measure and want to kill it because it does not include some of their “climate justice” concerns. Greer gives the same-sex marriage campaign as a contrasting success, where they were able to keep their eye on the ball with their single issue and not tie it to every other issue on the left (however important they may be in their own right).
2) The Partisan Trap: “The Democratic Party is the place where environmental causes go to die,” according to Greer. “This isn’t accidental,” he says. “Both US parties have perfected the art of reducing once-independent movements for social change into captive constituencies, which keep on working to elect candidates for one or the other party, while getting essentially nothing in return.” I-732 attempts to avoid this trap by making I-732 revenue neutral and enlisting the support of fiscal conservatives who care about the environment.
3) Purity Politics: “…movements for social change must exclude everyone who fails any of a battery of tests of ideological purity. It’s been pointed out, and truly, that the Right looks for allies to attract while the Left looks for heretics to expel; this is one of the reasons that for the last forty years, the Right has been so much more successful than the Left.” Greer also observes that “capacity to bridge ideological divides and find common ground on a single issue isn’t a guarantee of victory, but refusing to do so is almost always a guarantee of defeat.” I-732 may not be perfect, but it is a very well crafted, and sincere effort to put together an initiative that bridges ideological divides and has actually gained support from both the left and the right in true bi-partisanship. It is a practical and pragmatic approach that actually has a chance to be implemented. It will likely be too late if we think we can wait for something better.
4) Pandering to the Privileged: “Since the early 1980s, most activists have framed their appeals and their campaigns as though the only audience that mattered consisted of affluent liberals, and as often as not went out of their way to ignore or even insult the great majority of Americans—you know, the people who would have had to be on their side if their cause was going to achieve any kind of lasting victory.” It is here that the I-732 campaign might have done a better job in engaging with advocates for the poor, minority coalitions, and climate justice folks. But the reality is that I-732 will result in a larger increase of income for low income working families than any other reform of the last decade.
“In summary, I-732 is a chance for citizens of Washington State to make a meaningful step towards reducing carbon emissions, will make our State tax system fairer and less regressive, will foster business and economic activity, and will serve as a positive example to the nation of environmentally effective bipartisan action.” – Cliff Maas