Why Do Washington Voters Struggle With Climate Change Policies?

Despite environmental awareness and the public’s apparent desire for reform, statewide initiatives keep failing

Attempts to tax carbon emissions have twice failed on Washington state ballots and efforts in the Legislature have been stalled. And while activists say they’ll continue to push for greener policies, some researchers are suggesting the way these policies are constructed must be rethought.

Let’s start with the climate facts facing the U.S. and the world in 2018. Global temperature averages have been increasing since the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, and in 2012, NASA data showed the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Since then, federal data shows a three-year streak of record setting temperatures globally from 2014 to 2016—with 2016 clocking in as the hottest year. The four warmest years on record have occurred since 2014, according to the data, and the Earth’s surface has warmed by 1.3 to 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901. By the end of this century, researchers say there is a 90 percent chance temperatures will increase between 3.6 to 8.8 degrees.

The effects of a warmer Earth are already being felt everywhere: larger, longer, and more devastating wildfires on the West Coast; rapidly shrinking polar ice caps; stronger hurricanes; rising sea levels; displaced towns and countries; and extinction of wildlife. This warming is being largely driven by human emissions through burning of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, which are involved in everything from food production to powering homes and providing jobs across the U.S.

In response, climate activists and organizations drafted and presented two initiatives to try to rein in carbon emissions in Washington state. Initiative 732 was rejected in 2016, while Initiative 1631, which was thought to have enjoyed more popular support, gained only 43 percent of the statewide vote in 2018. In fact, I-1631 failed to gain a majority in all but three counties in Washington even after a so-called “blue wave” swept through the state, handily sending both Democratic senators back to the other Washington and flipping the important 8th Congressional District seat away from Republicans.

In the Wake of I-1631

Leading up to the November 2018 election, activists were optimistic that I-1631 had a fighting chance at the ballot. The 2016 carbon-pricing measure had failed to gain support from many social-justice organizations and many mainstream liberal politicians, but in response, the 2018 initiative was drawn up by a coalition known as the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, which represented a sweeping array of environmental activists, community organizations, and political power. It received much-needed funding from conservation organizations and billionaires like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. In total, I-1631 netted $15.3 million, more than four times as much as I-732 had raised two years earlier.

In opposition, the fossil-fuel industry managed to raise $31.2 million to campaign against I-1631, with BP America alone pumping more than $13 million into that effort. Roads in Puget Sound, and presumably across the state, were packed with “No on 1631” signs, and the lion’s share of the campaign’s funding, according to the Public Disclosure Commission, went into advertising that flooded radio, TV, and online outlets.

One organization with the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy was 350 Seattle, which was also active in the I-1631 campaign. Alec Connon, a staff collective member with 350 Seattle, said the fossil fuel industry’s spending was overwhelming. “We’ve never seen political spending like that in the state,” he said.

Connon made it clear he was speaking only for his organization, not the entire coalition. He said they will likely lobby the Legislature in 2019 to pass measures to address climate change, and said they don’t have plans to push for carbon pricing this session. Connon said the influx of cash opposing the initiative was a major factor leading to its rejection by voters.

I-1631 would have levied a fee of $15 per metric ton on carbon emissions beginning in January 2020. The fee would have increased by $2 each year until emissions dipped 50 percent below levels seen in 1990. It could have raised $1 billion annually ,with 70 percent going toward clean-energy programs for low-income people or workers laid off from the energy industry. Another 25 percent would have been used in clean water and forest investments, and the remainder would have gone to communities affected by climate change to prepare for its effects.

While this cocktail of spending won over a coalition representing working people, vulnerable groups, communities of color, and many organizations that spoke out against I-732, the people instead voted with their pocketbooks and rejected I-1631.

The French Connection

In recent weeks, France has been rocked by volatile protests against a proposed increase in fuel taxes. The streets are filled with a diverse array of protesters, but the image of the “yellow vests” doesn’t seem to fit into any premade political narrative about climate change and taxation.

Conventional wisdom in the U.S. says climate change and carbon pricing fall along party lines, with conservatives opposing them and liberals championing them. But The Atlantic reported on Dec. 8 that while the yellow-vest protesters in France are forcefully resisting the fuel tax and gaining support from publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page, many of them support the fight against climate change. Several protesters told The Atlantic they came out to resist an increase in their cost of living and what they viewed as a tax that hurt poor and working-class people.

Aseem Prakash and Nives Dolšak are professors at the University of Washington who focus their research on climate policy. In an opinion piece published in The Hill, they write that while climate change itself will disproportionately affect poorer sections of society, climate activists have been unable to use that information to their advantage and are facing a populist backlash in France. Moreover, they point to this same trend in the U.S. In a November Gallup poll, only 2 percent of respondents listed environmental issues as the most important problem facing the U.S.

In an interview with Seattle Weekly, the pair said as people are forced to rank their priorities, climate change begins sliding down the list. When people are asked whether they support efforts to reduce climate change, most people say they do, but when asked if they think they should pay for measures to reduce it, support drops. Dolšak said there is a strong sense of “We the people should not be taxed, it should be the corporations that should be taxed,” and added that “There is a sense of urgency, policy has to happen, but we the consumers should not be bearing the cost of policy.”

For Dolšak and Prakash, evidence of this comes from not only the French protests, but also the failure of I-1631 to pass during a “blue-wave” election in a state relatively friendly to green programs. Dolšak said there is a misperception that large polluters can be taxed without that cost being passed on to consumers. Even the most progressive ideas, such as those proposed by the People’s Policy Project, concede that oil companies and natural-gas producers will pass the cost to their customers.

“Environmental policy must work for all Americans,” Prakash said.

Embedded Environmentalism

In addressing climate change, Prakash and Dolšak said there are two main routes to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. One is for the government to invest heavily in technology that reduces emissions, requiring public funding. The second is through a carbon tax such as a straight charge or a cap-and-trade setup, both of which could raise costs for consumers. However, included in both calculations is the fact that as oil and gas are phased out, employees in these industries will be out of a job.

The UW pair argues that while moving to greener energy has broad, diffused benefits for everyone, it can acutely harm smaller groups of people such as miners. These groups often rally against the prospect of becoming unemployed in regions of the country such as coal-producing Appalachia. Prakash and Dolšak said the philosophy of placing environmental policy in broader economic solutions is called embedded environmentalism—an approach that is gaining national attention. “So you’re not protecting the environment for the sake of the environment, you’re protecting the environment because you want everyone to benefit, including the people who are bearing the cost,” Prakash said.

U.S.Rep.-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has proposed a Green New Deal, which aims to “give every American a job in that new economy: installing solar panels, retrofitting coastal infrastructure, manufacturing electric vehicles,” The Atlantic wrote on Dec. 5. The idea of a Green New Deal was proposed when Democrats were swept into Congress in the 2006 election, but the proposal all but died in 2010 amid a Republican and Tea Party resurgence, according to the report.

Revenue generated by I-1631 would have been restricted to projects that arguably would have had similar effects for displaced workers, but Dolšak said the opposition campaign appeared to be successful in painting the initiative as raising funds to be spent unaccountably. This misconception may have played a part in I-1631’s ultimate ballot defeat, Dolšak said, adding that environmental regulators would have been on the board that would have allocated the revenue. “These are not ignorant people, these are people who spend and invest and decide how to prioritize environmental policies on a daily basis,” she said.

For people in the U.S. with limited incomes, including affected workers and those who would end up paying more for carbon pricing, climate policy has to offer relief somewhere else, Prakash said. This could come from tax breaks as in I-732, investments in vulnerable communities as in I-1631, or through cutting everyone in the country a check.

“We have to decide how do we want people to spend their money, because people cannot get more money, the wages are stagnant, and if you keep increasing taxes without giving people something in the short term, people are going to revolt,” Prakash said.

Connon with 350 Seattle said that equity was included as an integral part of I-1631 and that it had been written by organizations representing communities acutely affected by climate change. Even still, this failed to convince a majority of Washington state voters to support the initiative. “I do believe that 1631 was equitable and just in how it planned to have the revenues dispersed,” Connon said. “I also truly believe that any future carbon pricing should have equity and justice at its heart.”

Dramatic Action

One such proposal has been presented by the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank. In a September 2018 paper titled “Disrupting the Dirty Economy,” economics professors Anders Fremstad and Mark Paul, at Colorado State University and New College of Florida respectively, argue that carbon pricing should be implemented nationally and priced at a high cost, with the revenue sent directly back to residents. The plan is designed to meet the goal of restricting a temperature increase of more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).

The paper also states that climate change and the economy must be addressed at the same time as part of a “Green New Deal.” “If policymakers are to address climate change in a serious way, they must grapple with the fact that major policy reforms must be taken to rapidly change the structure of our economy. Further, policymakers should acknowledge the fact that two of the most pressing issues of our time—climate change and economic inequality—are inextricably linked,” according to the professors.

The paper states that more than three-quarters of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions come from CO2, and these should be taxed upstream at the mine mouth, wellhead, and refinery as well as places where fuels are imported at a rate of $230 per ton of CO2. In turn, the price of most goods would dramatically increase, especially at the gas pump where the price of gas would increase by around 1 cent per $1 per ton of CO2 tax. This would drive up the price of gas by around 80 percent and electricity by more than 50 percent, increasing the cost of goods and services by roughly $750 billion for U.S. households.

To offset this, the government would pay the revenues directly back to everyone in the country via an estimated $2,237-per-person annual dividend payment, according to the professors. The logic behind this is that the wealthiest 10 percent of people in the country will create nearly six times as much pollution as those in the bottom 10 percent, meaning one wealthy person pollutes as much as 5.5 poorer people. A carbon tax of $230 per metric ton of CO2 would cost the poorest 10 percent of people in the country around $866 every year, or 14 percent of their income, while the average person in the top 10 percent would pay around $4,738 or around 9 percent of their income, the paper said. This would create a net income increase for poor and middle-class people, while allowing the wealthy to pay for producing more emissions and dramatically reducing overall emissions, the paper argues.

Any national-level carbon pricing will require the political will and power to implement, and it seems unlikely that any such movement will come to power ahead of the 2020 election, said Prakash, adding that policy gridlock and a crowded news cycle may prevent national action for the near future. State-level initiatives like I-1631 may become more valuable in the future, even if their scope is limited when compared to much-needed federal emissions reforms.

“I don’t see any progress at the federal level,” he said, “so now the issue is what can be done at the state level.”