Sierra Club Members Dispute Sierra Club Position on Carbon Tax Measure

Internal conflicts demonstrate just how controversial Carbon Washington has become.

Since the Carbon Washington campaign was first launched last year as an initiative to the legislature, it’s been mired in political controversy – and not only because, by enacting a tax on carbon emissions, it pits environmentalists against the fossil fuel industry. The ideological conflicts surrounding its approach to climate policy have also been drawing stark battle lines between different environmental groups – and, it’s becoming more and more clear, within those groups, as well.

For Court Olson, a staunch climate activist and Sierra Club member, the Sierra Club’s official “Do Not Support” position on I-732, backed by the group Carbon Washington, is unconscionable. “I was so upset,” he says, when he read the note from the Chair of the Sierra Club’s Washington State Chapter in its summer newsletter. “It did not only say the Sierra Club does not support I-732, it was a scathing attack on I-732. And it had several false statements in it” regarding, for instance, that the measure could cost the state $900 million in lost revenue over the next six years. That is a number the I-732 campaign disputes (along, now, with the Sightline Institute). “It really upset me.”

“I’m a loyal member,” adds Sierra Club member Bill Roach, who’s been actively campaigning for Carbon Washington’s proposal for the past two years. “I think the Sierra Club does wonderful things and that’s why I’m a part of it. This happens to be a piece that I’m really sad about and disgusted with.”

It’s a “huge, vicious mistake,” says Erika Shriner, a former Sierra Club member and former member of the Washington chapter’s Conservation Committee.

The club’s state executive committee arrived at the “Do Not Support” position in April. “Do Not Support” does not equal “Oppose,” according to the club’s endorsement procedure, and Committee Chair Margie Van Cleve maintains that the vote to “not support” the measure was made after after much deliberation and a nearly unanimous vote — 11 to one.

But to members like Olson, it doesn’t add up, and they think political pressure from the club’s national office tilted the scales of what was supposed to be a grassroots process.

Through emails, conversations, and plenty of meetings, Olson says, “I have heard … that there is an overwhelming majority of Sierra Club members in our state who support I-732” and many are “outraged by this published position statement that doesn’t really reflect” their views. As a result, in August, Olson, other Sierra Club members, and some executive committee members moved to change the Club’s official position to a slightly more neutral one — a statement that said the Club “neither supports nor opposes I-732.” However, the effort was brought to an abrupt end when national staff stepped in to invoke a Sierra Club bylaw that effectively prohibited the Washington chapter from changing the language even slightly on its official position.

Roberta Brashear-Kaulfers, a volunteer for the national Bylaws and Standing Rules Committee, says the national office was brought in to enforce policy that keeps the club’s message consistent. “We felt that undoing that after several months of publicly discussing the ‘Do Not Support’ stance would … undermine the Club’s credibility with the public and partner organizations,” she says.

However, she also acknowledges that the Sierra Club has issues with I-732, regardless of what members in Washington feel, saying to support the measure would “throw resources and time at a policy that does not guarantee investments in clean energy, climate resiliency and green jobs creation are made — particularly in communities most vulnerable to climate change.”

The “Do Not Support” position, adds Margie Van Cleve, “is consistent… with the Club’s commitment to inclusion and equity” — something that the Sierra Club, both local and national, has been emphasizing more and more in recent years. “We’re committed to ensuring that the communities most affected by pollution and climate change guide our climate policy, and that we’re listening to what they want rather than telling them what they need.”

Erika Shriner, for one, believes that I-732 is the best chance we’ve got, for now, at passing climate policy, and that the club, through these positions, has “put politics ahead of addressing climate change. And that is a tragedy. It is an absolute tragedy. The Sierra Club is its membership. It is its volunteers. And when you ignore them, and when you stifle them, you’re just destroying your effectiveness.”

The ongoing tension here is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon; as the planet heats up, so do the debates about how to address it. A revenue-neutral carbon tax in Washington state could set a precedent for the rest of the country, according to many supporters of I-732. But for those individuals and groups who disagree with this kind of approach to climate policy, passing a revenue-neutral carbon tax now could make it more difficult to enact a revenue-positive one later — in Washington or, perhaps, anywhere. “I-732 misses the opportunity to enact a statewide price on carbon and use that to transition to more equitable, sustainable clean energy economy,” wrote Van Cleve in the Sierra Club’s summer newsletter. Also, crucially, the Sierra Club, like many other large, influential environmental groups, has been doing the long, hard work of building racial and socioeconomic equity into its policy approaches, and it only makes sense to continue to build those things.

As Washington Environmental Council president Becky Kelley told Seattle Weekly this spring, a revenue-positive approach to climate change policy that works in tandem with social justice groups — such as the proposal that the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy released on Earth Day this year — has “every bit as good of an urgency argument as I-732. It’s a different worldview… If we do it right, we will accomplish the same [emissions-reduction] goals even faster… The transition to a clean-energy economy is a process. You don’t flip a switch on election night. It’s actually a pretty profound transformation we’re envisioning here.”

What Shriner hears from these kinds of arguments “is essentially that climate change is not a big enough issue to stand alone — that it has to cure other social problems… So if somebody, Joe Schmoe, came up with this incredible program that would take a bite out of climate change, you mean to tell me that the Sierra Club — an environmental organization — would not support it because it failed to go through this one step?… It just doesn’t compute. No, [I-732] is not perfect. And no, it doesn’t do everything. [But] if we wait for perfection,” she says, “We’re going to be on fire long before that… There was a point where I was crying about this. I am a 20-year climate activist. To me, it’s everything.”

The Sierra Club maintains that no matter the outcome in November, it is “committed to working together… with our allies in the labor, social justice, immigrant, and Tribal communities to support efforts to stop climate change and preserve a clean, healthy environment for future generations.”