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Guest Opinion: Carbon initiative not a good deal for poor

An Oxfam protest about climate change (2007) Credit: Oxfam

The time has already passed when policies to address climate change could remain focused on the climate track without also addressing the social and racial equity implications of both carbon pollution and market-based mechanisms to curtail it.

This is why Communities of Color for Climate Justice, a coalition of organizations emerging out of minority and immigrant communities, has come together to tackle climate change in a way that addresses the climate gap — where lower-income people of color experience the worst impacts of both climate change and the pollution that causes it, despite having contributed the least to the problem. We have united around Principles for Climate Justice, which we use to evaluate such policies.

The principles call for a carbon price mechanism:

  • That is informed by a racial equity analysis which accounts for the disparate impacts of climate change and greenhouse gas pollution on communities of color and seeks to eliminate them.
  • That invests in communities most affected by climate change and the pollution that causes it to account for the costs of pollution and the costs of tools created to address pollution, and to pay for  investments that spur projects that help these communities adapt to climate disruption.
  • That creates mechanisms for transparent, culturally appropriate, accessible public participation to ensure accountability in implementation process.

Revenue neutral proposals, like the initiative for which Carbon Washington is currently gathering signatures, fall short against these criteria. While Carbon Washington’s proposal would recycle some revenue generated through a carbon tax into the Working Families Tax Rebate, the ballot measure does not live up to a recent  pitch by Carbon Washington’s creator, Yoram Bauman, on the “social justice benefit” of proposed Initiative 732.

Social justice cannot be achieved through rebates alone. This “tax swap” carefully preserves our state’s regressive revenue system. But for Washington’s most highly impacted communities, maintaining the status quo is not enough.

Climate change will exacerbate existing racial and economic inequalities and health disparities unless climate policies are designed specifically to address them. For example, those most likely to experience higher rates of heat-related illness in Washington state are farm workers — a group that is overwhelmingly Latino. Carbon Washington’s proposal makes no effort to address this reality because, for instance, funding Spanish-language training to help workers identify symptoms would eliminate the proposal’s revenue neutrality.

An equitable climate policy will make low-carbon alternatives accessible to everyone and ensure that all communities are equally able to adapt to the impacts of climate change. We need to invest in the areas in our state that already suffer from the public health impacts of unfettered pollution and changing weather patterns, that lack the infrastructure necessary to adapt to higher sea levels or increased stormwater, and that are most vulnerable to job loss because of ocean acidification, warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. Furthermore, Carbon Washington’s proposal fails to address the needs of workers who will require assistance in the transition from a carbon-based economy to one that is greener and more renewable.

Equitable transit-oriented development projects in highly impacted communities, for example, would target our state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions by taking cars off the road and would have the added benefits of reducing pollution and improving connectivity for transit-dependent households.

The revenue neutrality of Carbon Washington’s proposal precludes the possibility of investments like these that are crucial to creating the kinds of communities that are truly sustainable. Such investments could also be leveraged to create the kinds of jobs our communities need. The policy therefore fails to achieve our second principle.

A price on carbon is ultimately intended to signal market shifts toward a sustainable economy. At its philosophical core, Carbon Washington’s proposal fails to raise the question of what it is Washington ought to sustain. Our Principles for Climate Justice make it clear that existing racial and socioeconomic disparities are fundamentally unsustainable. These disparities will inhibit efforts to address climate change unless our climate policies directly address inequity.

We can — and must — do better than Carbon Washington. A sustainable, equitable future depends on it.

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