Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Climate justice in collision with revenue-neutral carbon policies?

Plotting options for carbon policy in Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee’s Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce just issued its recommendations.  The report sets up a political collision between advocates for neutral carbon pricing systems and climate justice proponents.

The CERT sagely concluded that carbon reduction goals are not going be met by market-based solutions alone.  It is not enough to put a price on carbon, or set a legal cap.  It will take a “harmonized, comprehensive policy approach.”  By increasing the price of fossil fuel energy, market mechanisms provide an “economic infrastructure” that sends “a common price signal across all emissions sources and emissions reductions opportunities.”   This signal must be accompanied by “a well harmonized set of complementary policies” and “targeted use” of carbon revenues. 

“Particular attention needs to be given to the transportation sector as the largest source of carbon emissions in the state,” CERT noted. Complementary policies are needed to promote transit and transit-oriented development, and alternative fuels such as electricity. 

Gov. Inslee's carbon task force called for increased transit invesments.
This emphasis on transportation alternatives is spot on.  It is partly aimed at reducing the impact of increased fuel costs on economically stressed populations.  That’s smart because it is exactly among those populations where fossil fuel interests will seek to drive a political wedge into the unified progressive coalition needed to pass carbon policy. 

For building that coalition, how carbon revenues are spent will be crucial.  “Revenues . . . can be devoted to a variety of purposes.  These include economic development and opportunities for job growth, mitigating impacts to consumers and low-income populations, and investments in alternative energy technologies and modes of transportation . . . Investments in projects that improve energy efficiency, such as building retrofits, and reduce the carbon intensity or use of fuels, such as green infrastructure development, public transportation, renewable energy, and low carbon fuels, could support job growth.” 

This obviously stands in contradiction to revenue-neutral carbon pricing systems such as those advocated by Carbon Washington and the Citizens Climate Coalition.  These systems would redistribute 100% of revenues back to taxpayers, thus allowing no additional funds for carbon-reducing investments.  Reading through the CERT report, there seems to be remarkably little appetite for such systems among taskforce members.  Instead what comes through the report is a sense that carbon revenues need to be spent on carbon reduction, particularly for communities most vulnerable to higher energy prices.  

“A substantial share of revenues . . .  should be invested in actions that reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and help communities prepare for the impacts of climate change,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a supplemental letter. “For example, California’s cap and trade program helps fund local transit service and operations, recognizing the GHG reduction benefits that transit provides by reducing congestion, providing alternatives to cars, and supporting efficient land use and transit-oriented development. Because a market-based solution should not be relied on to achieve all the State’s GHG reductions, it will be important to reinvest a significant portion of the program’s revenue into efforts that support further reductions beyond the impact of the price on carbon.”

Another supplemental letter from CERT members Remy Trupin, executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, and Adam Glickman, vice president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, drives home the climate justice point. 

Washingtonians with lower incomes cannot afford to reduce their reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources: Without additional resources, it would be especially difficult for people with fewer social and economic resources to make the expensive investments in retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, fuel-efficient cars, and other low-carbon infrastructure and technologies needed to make the program a success . . . Faced with sharp increases in fuel and energy costs, communities with lower incomes may be unable and/or unwilling to support the long-term goals of carbon reduction."

Trupin and Glickman make a call: “Invest the vast majority of carbon revenues in ways that further reduce carbon emissions. The overarching goal of a carbon pricing mechanism is to reduce carbon emissions. Therefore, the bulk of carbon revenues should be used to ensure reductions are achieved as quickly, efficiently, and painlessly as possible. Devoting a large portion of carbon revenues toward provisions to help communities with lower incomes absorb higher energy costs and reduce fossil fuel consumption would be an effective way to achieve long-term carbon reductions.”

CERT members as a whole made a priority on investment of revenues in ways that “address any prospective adverse impacts on racial and economic equity” and improve public health in emissions-impacted communities, particularly low-income and minority.

Another supplemental letter from member Rich Stolz, Executive Director of immigrant advocate group OneAmerica, contains a “Principles for Climate Justice” declaration adopted by the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, El Centro de la Raza, Climate Solutions, Community to Community, Got Green?, the Latino Community Fund, OneAmerica, Puget Sound Sage and Washington CAN!

“Racial equity must be at the center of policies that address climate change,” the principles state.  “People of color and communities with lower incomes must receive net-environmental and economic benefits.”

“Revenue raised through any program should be used on strategies with a strong nexus with policies and programs that address climate change, and should be invested directly in lower-income communities, indigenous communities and communities of color so that the economic benefits outweigh the policy’s economic burdens. 

“Reinvested revenue should work to accomplish the following: The highest priority for reinvestment must be to mitigate financial costs of implementation to communities with lower incomes. Further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Create clean, living wage jobs that open pathways for people with lower-incomes, people of color, and local residents to enter the green industry workforce. Enable people to live where they work with access to clean transportation, an affordable place to live, and clean and secure food sources.”

The way the climate movement is morphing into the climate justice movement is quite encouraging. With the end of the bipartisan environment that made some progress on climate policy possible in the mid-2000s, it will take a strong and unified progressive coalition to achieve success.  This is boldface underscore true if the Washington climate policy debate is ultimately settled by ballot initiative, as the unfavorable politics of a Republican state senate indicate is the likely outcome.

Advocates for revenue-neutral systems will argue that redistribution of revenues will allay impacts on lower- and middle-income communities.  Washington with its sales tax based system is the most regressive in the nation. A general cut in sales taxes, or directed tools such as tax credits returned to working families, certainly would help those communities.  Some form of revenue redistribution will almost certainly be part of any proposal forthcoming from the governor. 

But a pure revenue-neutral system seems not in the cards.  One key point coming from polling is that people really do not believe politicians will really return all the revenue. And in fact people do support affirmative public policies to build up transit, green jobs, energy efficiency retrofits and other measures that will benefit us all, but especially the most economically stressed among us.

The demand for climate justice now coming from many quarters will powerfully drive such policies. That is one of the strongest messages coming out of the CERT process.  Assembling any winning coalition will require strategies to invest carbon revenues in ways that directly address the climate justice imperative.  It is time for revenue-neutral advocates to recognize that the political landscape is shifting and consider more mixed systems that indeed do invest directly in the public good. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Climate politics at a dead end – How to build a new road

Climate politics is dead-ended. 

It may seem strange to make such a statement in the wake of the much-heralded U.S.-China climate deal announced November 12.  So let me clarify.

President Obama did announce the intent to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 26-28% by 2025, while China said it would peak carbon emissions and generate at least 20% of its energy from non-fossil sources by 2030. 

All well and good, but far from the 6% annual emissions cuts required to hold overall global warming under 2° Celsius, the minimal borderline between climate disruption that is merely severe and that which is utterly catastrophic (though many scientists believe the cutoff is more like 1.5°C). In other words, the U.S.-China agreement represents only a slower road to climate hell.

Okay, but it’s a start, right?

“The agreement with China is a good first step. But we hope it is but a first step because it is not enough to prevent significant climate change,” noted Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Unfortunately, it may be the last step possible in the current political environment.  Republican election victories in the U.S. Senate and states around the country have put legislative progress on global warming into a deep freeze. 
Breaking through a dead-ended climate politics will require advancing a bold vision for a low-carbon-society and a plausible roadmap to achieve it. 
In Washington State hopes for a state climate policy victory with national implications were stirred by the 2012 election of climate hawk Jay Inslee to the governorship.  Failure to take the State Senate back from Republican control, despite huge contributions from high-net-worth funders, leaves the state climate community up against a legislative brick wall.  The governor's climate task force issued its report Nov. 17 lining out options for a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system.  The governor will certainly try to achieve whatever he can, but a Senate Republican majority that refuses new revenue measures is a huge hurdle.  A ballot initiative might be the next step.  Polling indicates majority support, but not by a margin that ensures confidence in the face of what would surely be a tsunami of fossil fuel industry campaign spending. 

So instead of being a first step, the U.S.-China agreement seems more on the order of as good as it gets.  Politics is sometimes defined as the art of the possible.  The agreement illuminates the boundary of what is possible at the current moment.  The road ends here, at least the road that has been built to date.

An absolutely crucial point is that the emissions reductions Obama was able to bring to the table are the product of victories won years ago by climate advocates working at the state level. 

The Daily Beast quotes Ethan Zindler, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance,  “The commitment on the U.S. side is a summation of a variety of commitments that have already been made. The president can’t go out and promise new stuff—not even with this Congress, let alone the Congress he’s going to have next year.” 

Instead, Obama’s pledge was made on the basis of Environmental Protection Agency regulation of carbon emissions from power plants, and a vehicle fuel efficiency agreement with the auto industry.  Resulting carbon reductions are the substance of the U.S. side of the agreement.  (China’s pledge is also in line with its expected emissions curve.)

Power plant regulation is the result of a Supreme Court case by Massachusetts against the Environmental Protection Agency asserting that carbon dioxide is a threat to human health and thus must be regulated under the Clean Air Act.  Massachusetts, joined by a set of states with pro-climate politics including Oregon and Washington, won the case in 2007.  The states forced EPA to regulate power plant CO2. And this is not fully secure under a Republican Congress.  Already there are threats to cut off EPA funding for power plant regulation.

The fuel efficiency agreement was the product of a very deliberate campaign by climate advocates to increase state-level regulation of vehicle tailpipe emissions.  A California law that limited CO2 pollution from cars and trucks opened the door.  Because California air pollution regulations pre-dated federal law, California is legally allowed to make its own rules.  Other states are allowed to opt in.  A mid-2000s effort pushed states to do just that, including Oregon and Washington.  The thought was that if enough states enacted higher standards, auto companies would no longer find it worth it to manufacture two lines of vehicles.  They didn’t, so Obama had the clout he needed to extract the agreement from Detroit.

Thus Obama’s ability to go to China and make pledges rests on victories won in the middle of the last decade based on political strength in specific states.  The two state-level carbon regulation systems in the U.S. date from that era as well.  California’s cap-and-trade and the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative were both enacted in the mid-2000s.  That was when there was still some bipartisan energy behind climate action.  The California system was passed with the support of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.  New York Republican Gov. George Pataki initiated the Northeast system.  That was before global warming became a cultural-political divide on the order of abortion.  Similar victories today would require a level of unity among Democrats that they so far have not demonstrated.

So that puts the question – If we have reached the limits of the politically possible how do climate advocates expand the boundary?  How do we build on what has been accomplished to enact carbon reducing policies that will avert catastrophic climate disruption?

The quick answer is – Not by stepping back or pulling in our horns.  But by boldly lining out the full scope and scale of carbon-reducing changes that are scientifically required.  We need to create a political and moral demand for a genuinely low-carbon society and economy, with emissions reductions that match the science.  We need to build a vision of that society and economy that makes sense to people with a plausible roadmap to that destination. 

We need to work in a 2020s and 2030s timeframe, understanding that because we do not have the political juice to make the big changes now we will need to make even bigger changes in the coming two decades.  We must aim at building the level of political will and popular support needed to make those changes.  We must put the demand on the table.

It must be about rapid transition to low-carbon energy, about shifting the electrical grid to 100% renewables, about powering our transportation system fully with clean fuels, about making a society that uses energy far more efficiently, about transforming forestry and farming to soak carbon from the atmosphere.  It must also be about shared prosperity and economic equity, building social, economic and environmental sustainability in unison.  Because if we don’t work on all three aspects of sustainability at once we are unlikely to achieve any of them.

Right now this is a project of building a common vision and roadmap, and communicating it broadly.  Tables must be brought together  joining environmentalists, labor, ethnic communities, faith communities and other progressive constituencies to build the vision and roadmap.  The product must be communicated through extensive public education efforts that reach the grassroots level.  Of course the climate movement should not give up on incremental changes that can be made now.  Any coal plant that can be shut down, any pipeline of coal port stopped, any improvement in clean energy policy that can be made will advance the cause.  The framework of a larger, long-term agenda will strengthen all such efforts.   

In creating vision and making demands, let us focus on the importance of place.  It is hard for people to wrap their minds around abstract global concepts.  It is easier to envision what change looks like if it is set in the context of place, of people’s communities and regions.  People love their places and are loyal to them in a way that transcends party and political lines.  Generating a vision for a better city or state is the ground on which to generate demand a better world.  Change at the top begins from the bottom up, as with the coal plant and vehicle efficiency regulations.

This is not time to pull back but to boldly step forward.  Courage and determination will carry us through if we adopt a long-term perspective and begin building from the grassroots now.  If climate politics is dead-ended we need to build a new road.  Let us create a popular aspiration for low-carbon places and regions by building visions and roadmaps to get there. This is the route that is open to us now.