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Environmentalists are struggling with carbon tax proposal

It’s a rainy Saturday night. My teen and I are headed to a birthday bash where there will be live Latin music and refuge from contentious politics — or so I think. But when we arrive and I survey the crowd — teachers and social workers, Guatemalan immigrants, immigrant rights activists and, of course, a few enviros (after all this is Seattle) — I doubt there will be escape from the frenzy of politics, local, national or global.

Tamales, guacamole and mojitos are passed around. When the dance music starts I ask my teen to salsa. He’s game. We make progress. Then a pitch comes from the floor to raise money for a local non-profit, New Dawn Guatemala, which works to provide scholarships, jobs training, and infrastructure in villages in the Central American nation. It’s a cause I relate to with a son who was born there.

After that, the carbon tax enters the conversation and a few of us gather on the sidelines to debate.

Over a year and a half ago at this same house, a fundraiser was held for the initiative with Yoram Bauman, the co-director of Carbon Washington, the campaign behind it. Many here attended that event and will vote yes on I-732. One supporter says it will be a huge victory: “If we can do this in Washington, We can do it nationally and then we’ve set the groundwork for doing it internationally.”

Others, including myself, are conflicted. Don’t get me wrong, climate change is one of the most urgent ecological and humanitarian crises of our time. Should carbon be taxed? Of course, says the environmental writer in me. Better yet, remove all fossil fuels from the energy mix and replace them with a surge of clean energy investments. September saw the highest global temperatures on record. With over 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, there’s no turning back.

Locally, we’ll see wetter winters, less snow pack to feed rivers, warmer water temperatures that threaten salmon, drought in traditionally wet river valleys and near-apocalyptic fires. To the south of us, on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast where my teen was born in a small fishing village, hurricanes are intensifying, punishing those who fish for survival.

But taking action to mitigate climate change, as I’ve learned covering environmental issues, needs to incorporate comprehensive equity measures, both economic and racial. The issue of climate justice, as it’s often called, has attracted growing attention in the debate on the future of fossil fuels.

The goal of I-732 is to use market pricing to drive down fossil-fuel consumption by taxing greenhouse gas emissions. Oil, coal and natural gas would be taxed at $15 per ton in 2017 and eventually rise to $100 a ton over the next 40 years. At the pump this translates to about fifteen cents more a gallon the first year of implementation. The price would be offset by a cut in the sales tax of a full percentage point and a hefty cut in the business and operations tax. Revenue from the carbon tax would also fund the state’s Working Family Tax Rebate for the first time: As a result, 460,000 families who earn 200 percent or less than the federal poverty level throughout the state could receive up to $1,500 a year in tax relief.

Sounds equitable, no? Not if you talk with Jill Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green, a grassroots group that works to fight poverty and climate change. She’s adamantly opposed to I-732 and says market measures are inadequate.

Got Green, One America, and a host of climate justice, environmental and labor groups along with the state Democratic Party, formed the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy to press for a more equitable initiative. They want an initiative that will generate more revenue to address equity issues and clean energy jobs, especially for people of color and youth communities. The Alliance announced an alternative proposal in April that would tax polluters and at the same time add new money to state coffers to help people adjust to the changes and invests the money in green industries. This proposal will not be on ballot this year.

Mangaliman claims I-732 will pass down the costs of a carbon tax to communities of color and low-income communities, which “is not acceptable.” She also says that it does not fix the state’s regressive tax system, which relies on sales and real property taxes; a system that has the most adverse effect on those with smaller paychecks.

While the initiative would cut the state’s sales tax, making the overall system less regressive by definition, Mangaliman says the initiative doesn’t address the economic and racial burdens found in the communities with which Got Green works. “Who disproportionately pays for state revenue?” she asks. “It’s low-income people.”

But for many who care deeply about climate change, the issue of equity is hard to reconcile when climate chaos is well underway. After a debate about environmental issues between 7th Congressional District candidates Pramila Jayapal and Brady Walkinshaw, I recognize a woman I know from the dance world. She says she’s voting for Walkinshaw because he favors I-732. I tell her I’m unsure and try to tease out the equity perspective. “I grew up poor,” she says, “and I’m voting for it.”

It’s an issue dividing many organizations and, no doubt, many families. The Sierra Club faced internal repercussions from grassroots supporters who disagreed with a national decision made in April to withhold support from the ballot measure. Kyle Murphy, co-director of the CarbonWA campaign. resigned from the Club’s executive committee because, he says, “These kind of things shouldn’t happen behind closed doors or hidden behind obscure bylaws.”

Murphy says the Club “went out of its way, even flying in national staff from Oakland, to overrule its members and local leaders who realize we need to act now on climate.” Another club member unhappy with the decision, William McPherson, says that if the ballot measure passes, many local members of the Club will reach out and work with allied organizations to enact what he calls “public policies that ensure a just transition and those needed to prevent and mitigate climate change.”

As for how I’ll cast my vote, as an environmental reporter with a heart for justice, I’m not sure. As I contemplate this a few days after the party, a rufous hummingbird is sipping nectar from a fuchsia outside my office window. The feisty long-distance migrants who can travel up to 50 miles an hour from Central America on their way to Alaska to breed, are projected to lose 100 percent of their winter range to climate change by 2080. The predicaments around how to vote on I-732 are not easy to resolve.

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