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A post-election open letter to the environmental community in Washington State

There are two paths to carbon pricing in Washington State and beyond. One path is to take a bipartisan approach by trying to find common ground with folks on the right side of the political spectrum. The other path is what I call the Progressive Take-Over of the World: Democrats work to elect an environmental majority and push through their agenda. This path is intellectually and ideologically comfortable—it fits squarely into the progressive vision that many environmental activists share and so requires no compromises or hard decisions—but it is almost certainly the wrong way to go. The purpose of this letter is to make the case for pursuing a bipartisan approach instead. 

Let’s begin with the recent election results, which suggest that the Progressive Take-Over of the World is further away than many on the left had  hoped. As noted by EarthFix’s “Election Shifts Oregon Closer To Carbon Tax, Not So For Washington”: “Environmentalists spent more than $1.5 million in Oregon and Washington in bids to secure Democratic majorities in state legislatures — majorities they wanted for approving clean-fuel standards and a tax on carbon emissions. The plan worked in Oregon. It didn’t in Washington.”

And if pursuing a Democratic majority is hard in Washington State, it is even more so in Congress.

The reaction to the election from some folks on the left—perhaps including Governor Inslee—seems to be to double-down on the Progressive Take-Over of the World. The post-election coverage in the Seattle Times (“Inslee committed to pursuit of climate-change bill despite election’s outcome”) notes that “Inslee stressed that he’s not yet wedded to any proposal, but floated the possibility of ‘a grand bargain,’ such as a cap-and-trade plan that would charge carbon polluters and direct some of the money to schools.” How this might be seen as a “grand bargain” is a complete mystery because both parts of the “bargain”—putting a price on carbon and increasing funding for education—are goals of the political left.

As for the bipartisan approach, many people in the environmental community dismiss it as impossible. For a representative take, consider the title of a recent post by Ben Adler in Grist: “Why Republicans won’t back a carbon tax”. Adler writes: “There are two possible paths to either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax: One, Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and feel more pressure to address climate change than they did in 2010, when they let the opportunity slip away. Or, two, Republicans come to accept climate science and decide they want to save the world from burning. But until Republicans come around to acknowledge the reality of climate change, they’re not going to agree to a carbon tax.” Adler’s assumption here—and the assumption of many in the environmental community—is that a bipartisan approach is impossible because of Republican intransigence.

The happy truth, however, is that there are already plenty of Republicans who acknowledge the reality of climate change. There are even plenty of Republicans who support carbon pricing. The Energy and Enterprise Initiative, founded by former 6-term South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, has just launched a new “RepublicEn” campaign for conservatives who are “energy optimists and climate realists”. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw—chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush—has a “Pigou Club” of economists and others who support environmental taxes. A recent article in the Globe and Mail, “Not all conservatives have their heads in the oil sands”, notes that “a revenue-neutral carbon tax, of the kind British Columbia implemented in 2008” is one of the favorite policies of George Shultz, formerly Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State.

There are local champions, too, even though finding them sometimes requires fighting through the usual narrative. An article in Crosscut (“Inslee climate plans: Heavy winds ahead”),  for example, has a traditional-sounding back-and-forth about climate research between some of the governor’s folks and Todd Myers of the free-market Washington Policy Center. But the fact is that Todd Myers is on our Carbon Washington advisory board and has been a stalwart advocate of revenue-neutral carbon taxes.

There are other potential local champions in even more unlikely places. State Senator Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) is a frequent critic of the governor’s climate policies but the Seattle Times notes that “he urged the state to look at ‘smart, market-based ways to include air quality and environment.’” Even the Western States Petroleum Association claims to support “[properly designed] market based programs… as the most cost effective way to reduce carbon emissions.” (See my “Open letter to WSPA” from earlier this year.) These potential local champions may not be serious—I’ve given two talks at WSPA events and so far they have been unable to specify what kind of “properly designed” program they could support—but there is a strong case to be made for calling their bluff: take the high ground, put a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the table, and see if it’s possible to find a real “grand bargain”.

That’s what our Carbon Washington campaign intends to do: file an initiative to the legislature this coming March, collect 300,000 signatures during the remainder of the year, and then pass our measure in the legislature in early 2016 or at the ballot in November 2016. Polling shows that we have a path to victory at the ballot, and that path will open up truly bipartisan discussions in the legislature.

We are asking you—the environmental community in Washington State—to join us. Help us finalize our policy, help us collect signatures, and help us lobby for bipartisan climate action in Olympia or in the voting booth.

We are delighted to have the support of a growing number of grassroots groups—including 350 Seattle, Olympic Climate Action, Divest UW, many local chapters of Citizens Climate Lobby, and the national CCL organization—and we intend to continue to grow and broaden our coalition of support. (See, for example, our endorsement from Seattle Business magazine and our sign-on letter from dozens of economists around the state.)

In the end, we are optimistic that everyone in the environmental community will come to see the wisdom of a truly bipartisan approach. To quote the post-election analysis from the New York Times: “’The most important thing is to normalize this issue with Republicans,’ said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. ‘Anything that makes it more partisan makes it less likely that there will be legislation, until such time as Democrats take over the world. Which according to my watch, will not be happening anytime soon.’”

Comments ( 12 )

  • Nancy Hannah says:

    Thank you for this Yoram, We have been wondering if we would have to choose between the two approaches, and were more and more concerned that these two approaches would split the support and therefore not make any progress. Many in the Sacred Earth Matters group at University Congregational UCC are on board with this approach.

  • Hans Stroo says:

    A well reasoned statement on the importance of building consensus as a necessary foundation for substantive political action. Thanks for sharing.

  • Warren Palmer says:

    Good stuff. Progressive Take-Over of the World isn’t going to happen nor would it be a good idea, since too many self-named progressives believe in magic when it comes to economics, not that conservatives don’t also indulge in magical thinking on economics. The two sides just believe in different kinds of magic: the magical visible hand of progressive government vs the magical invisible hand of the marketplace. The goal of economics as a discipline is to dispel magical thinking, to find what works and why it works, and then use this knowledge to design institutions that make both markets and governments work better. Carbon Washington demonstrates this approach in action.

  • Brad says:

    I support your thesis, generally. But the Grand Bargain is no mystery. Keep in mind that cap-and-trade is a market based approach originally touted by Republicans. So embracing that approach is more of a conservative (market) approach than a typical taxing scheme. Only when Democrats embraced it did it become anathema to many in the GOP. And the mandate to fund education in WA is hardly a narrowly Left agenda item, given the Supreme Court. So reasonable approaches should be available with some hard work and bargaining.

    My overarching concern is that rational compromise is not possible with some of the ideologues pulling the strings on the right, and that efforts to compromise end up gaining relatively nothing in exchange for too much. We must continue to drive hard bargains.

    Of course, there is a fine line between finding reasonable compromise and sticking to your guns. Just don’t let a low-turnout mid-term election overly influence your thinking on what is possible and what is a necessary compromise.

  • Lawrence MacDonald says:

    Well said, Yoram! If succeeds-and I believe that there’s a fighting chance that it will-you will have shown the way for the rest of the country, including the other Washington, where I happen to live.

    Brad, you raise an important consideration: You are of course right that there is a history of the right turning against its own ideas once these are embraced by the Democrats. We saw it not only with cap-and-trade, as you note, but more recently with the healthcare mandate as an alternative to single payer.

    The question is whether pollution-fee funded tax cuts would repeat this unfortunate history or prove an exception. I think that there’s a chance-but certainly no guarantee-that some combination of tax cuts, rebates, deficit reduction (and perhaps even a bit of investment in renewable energy technology and, who knows, maybe even education spending) could gather a broad enough coalition to overcome the power of the fossil fuel interests, which is ultimately what is needed.

    But it will need to be a very broad coalition, because the fossil fuel lobby is so rich and powerful, and members of the coalition will need to be motivated by more than just a desire to save the planet: they will need to be motivated by a desire to drive carbon prices ever upward to yield more revenue to scratch whatever is their particular itch. That’s where carbon pollution fees with revenue recycling beats cap-and-trade hands down: the creation of a regular, transparent revenue stream.

    Here’s hoping that can show the way!

  • Michael Gary says:

    A recent reply to my friend Don after reading his forward of this blog…..


    I read the Blog letter and I think it is pure folly of Gov. Inslee to pursue a carbon tax to fund schools…..and for anyone to think
    this is a remote possibility, considering the current political environment ie. the 2014 Elections Disaster for the environment
    and social issues…..

    Using that “ill-logic”, we should have had a carbon tax on all fossil fuels, rather than having the US Federal Government
    be giving tax breaks to oil companies for the past 150 years……or from day one of oil being discovered in Texas, Pennsylvania,
    and other places…..
    With ONE notable exception: Alaska
    At least in Alaska, all citizens get a check from the state government every year as proceeds from oil production……

    If Gov. Inslee thinks he can get a carbon tax on coal, won’t the coal industry cry foul, since oil companies are NOT paying a carbon tax ?
    And then, even if that does happen, isn’t the point of all of our hard work, TO STOP COAL ? (mining, transportation, domestic burning, and export)

    I still think it is a far better use of everyone’s time and effort to be lobbying members of Congress to repeal the Mining Act
    and the Railroad Act, two facets of this issue that no one seems to want to address.

    And finally, I had to laugh out loud with the line that, ” there are already plenty of Republicans who acknowledge the reality of climate change”.
    REALLY ? Are you freaking kidding me ? Which Republicans would that be ? ? ?
    ONE VOTE kept Keystone XL from passing the other day……
    As long as corporations own Congress through lobbying, and oil, coal, natural gas etc. mean jobs in Congressional districts, then no Republicans
    earnestly understand global climate change and are really capable of ending, or even slowing fossil fuel use……

    Mitch McConnell WILL pass Keystone XL and the President will veto it, and then it will be challenged by the corporations and it will end up in the
    (conservatively biased) Supreme Court which will allow it to be built and transport oil, for export……

    Feel free to share my email with anyone….

    As you may know by now, I’m a pragmatist…..and a realist…..

    We are fighting a losing battle…..until the laws are changed that allow fossil fuels to be produced and burned and transported all around the earth.

    And, until we elect enough progressives in the House and Senate, all of our efforts are for naught……

    Sincere regards,

    Michael Gary
    Woodland, WA

  • John Crusius says:

    A revenue-neutral carbon tax can work in WA state, just as it is working in British Columbia. It can spread to the rest of the US from here. It is not well known in the US, but the Canadian health care plan started in little Saskatchewan (by premier Tommy Douglas) and then spread to the rest of Canada. The same sort of transformation can happen with the carbon tax. If WA/OR lead, the leaders of the US will follow.

  • Toby Thaler says:

    I have a few questions:

    1. The ability of cap and trade to actually reduce GHG emissions is based in part on reference to British Columbia’s “success” over the past few years.

    However, when I look at the B.C. reports, I do not see any inclusion or even reference to the transshipment of coal and petroleum products. Should the global consequences of that activity be included? If not by B.C., where is it accounted for, China?

    2. The “endorsement from Seattle Business magazine” includes “Unless accompanied by tax cuts in other areas, cap and trade would raise money that could end up being used to fund every politician’s pet project.”

    It is well known that Washington has one of if not the most regressive tax structures in the U.S. Why shouldn’t revenue from taxes on carbon be used to fund the “paramount” education duty as mandated in the McCleary decision? More generally, why shouldn’t the public good of reducing GHG emissions be linked to the public good of creating a more progressive tax system? Is it possible?

    • Yoram Bauman says:

      Hi Toby, and thanks for your comments and questions.

      1) The BC carbon tax does not tax fossil fuel exports, and our proposal doesn’t either (because doing so would violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution). That’s not to say that fossil fuel exports aren’t important, but the carbon tax focuses on consumption.

      2) You ask “why shouldn’t the public good of reducing GHG emissions be linked to the public good of creating a more progressive tax system?” Our proposal attempts to address this issue by funding sales tax reductions and the Working Families Tax Exemption. Overall we think the proposal will improve the state tax system for everyone, including low-income households.

  • Jerry Gorsline says:

    Thank you for staking out this very sensible approach – I would much prefer seeing carbon taxes used to support alt energy R&D, etc. but agree with you that our only realistic hope is to shed the illusion of a “progressive takeover” and seek a bi-partisan approach that will break this stale stand-off.

  • Ed Chadd says:

    Hi Yoram, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis. One point on which I’m unclear is why the carbon tax/education funding gambit is so clearly a non-starter in your opinion. Yes, education funding (or government funding in general) might be seen as a progressive issue, but it’s a fairly non-partisan one, and it’s certainly true that the Legislature needs to find solutions to the McCleary decision. At least no one seems to be talking of amending the state constitution or staging a coup at the State Supreme Court. I’d like to think there’s a chance for a sensible “grand bargain” in the upcoming legislative session, but I also recognize the difficulty of getting anything done in the current poisoned political environment. That’s where, hopefully, the initiative process might come in, by perhaps pressuring the legislature to take some action, and, if they don’t, by bringing the issue to the people. I imagine people might support a carbon tax if they really understood, but the challenge will be getting people to really understand it-it’s a lot more complex than, say, gun sales or class size.

  • Green Avenger says:

    Um, I gotta say I agree with Michael Gary. I really haven’t seen the Republican State Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler come out in favor of any carbon pricing proposal. I can’t believe that people take him seriously when he says he might support a market mechanism to improve air quality. That’s paying lip service. And this is about more than air quality, it’s about climate change baby!

    Until I see Schoesler straight up say he supports a revenue neutral carbon tax or anything like it, I won’t believe it!

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