By Ramez Naam
“This Earth Day, let’s get really big stuff done for our planet. What are we waiting for? The time is now.” That’s the Earth Day Network’s call to action, from an organization that’s been successfully expanding awareness of environmental issues for 46 years. Yet, even with the growing awareness of the problem of climate change, we need far more concrete action to tackle the planet’s biggest environmental threat. Even here in Washington State, where we have a reputation for environmental leadership, we’re still far short of sound climate policy.
With Initiative 732, we have an opportunity to pass the most effective climate policy anywhere in the country. By adding a $25 per ton tax to the carbon pollution from fossil fuels, I-732 shifts taxes away from everyday goods and onto pollution. To help offset these increased costs, I-732 effectively eliminates the Business & Occupation tax on manufacturing. Putting a price on carbon pollution will expand the use of clean energy like solar and wind power in our state. It’ll encourage greater efficiency. And it’ll do so in a way that preserves and creates high-wage local jobs in the process.
I-732 also makes Washington taxes fairer and more progressive. It reduces the regressive sales tax by one percentage point, saving families around the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year on every day purchases. And it funds and expands the Working Families Tax Rebate, sending up to $200 million a year directly to low-income Washington families. It may be the single most progressive shift in the state’s tax structure – and the biggest anti-poverty measure in the state – since the sales tax exemption for grocery store food was approved in 1977.
The common theme we hear from people and groups who oppose I-732 — including, sadly, some environmental groups — is that they don’t think it’s a perfect proposal to address climate change. No policy is perfect, but the cost of inaction is too great to ignore. The cost of climate change in the next few years — in coastal and storm damage, wildfires, illnesses from declining air quality, reduced water availability and more — will be tremendous. If no action is taken to reduce emissions, potential costs to our state from climate change impacts are projected to reach $3.8 – $10.9 billion per year by 2020.
We’re already seeing signs of climate change in hotter and drier summers, larger and more intense wildfires and more severe winter flooding. And there’s more to come. Parts of Seattle are expected to be under water by 2050, and children who are alive today will see many coastal cities disappear. Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good. We don’t have time for endless debates. We have a moral obligation to protect our children and future generations, leaving them a world that’s cleaner, healthier and safer. We can begin right now to tackle climate change in Washington. And we can do so with an initiative that also makes the state tax code fairer and more progressive, and helps lift hundreds of thousand working families out of poverty.
Just this week, CNN’s John Sutter called I-732 “a brilliant first step.” Top climate scientists including Dr. James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who sounded the alarm on climate change nearly 30 years ago, and University of Washington Professor Richard Gammon, who oversaw the worldwide measurement of carbon dioxide while at NOAA, endorse I-732. And it has the support of hundreds of thousands of citizens across the state.
This Earth Day, let’s not shirk on our commitment to climate action. I-732 will be on our ballots this November. It’s the first and only carbon tax initiative in the country to ever go before voters in a state referendum. It can serve as model for other states around the US. We have an opportunity in Washington to lead the rest of the country on climate change, and to leave our children a better world. The time to act is NOW.
Ramez Naam is a best-selling author, futurist, and computer scientist. He’s a member of the Carbon Washington executive committee.