Wednesday, April 22, 2015

“Beginning of a revolution” – Earth Day’s first organizer on the 45th

Forty-five years ago today as a 17-year-old growing up in the Philly area I hitchhiked down to Fairmont Park to take part in the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.  I had been reading The Environmental Handbook, created for the event. For all the problems it depicted it also portrayed remarkably hopeful possibilities for building a sustainable world.  In the midst of the fractures of the Vietnam War era, there was a ray of sunlight in all this.

Sitting on a grass hill on a sunny day with the Philadelphia skyline in the background, I heard an inspiring line-up.  Where else could you see Allen Ginsberg and Edmund Muskie on the same stage?  The range embodied the essential significance of Earth Day, the unification of what had been many disparate movements – wilderness and wildlife preservation, anti-pollution, opposition to freeways, worker safety, etc. – into a unified “big tent” environmental movement that led to an environmental revolution. 

More than two dozen environmental acts were passed in the wake of Earth Day, laws to strengthen protections for clean air and clean water, the Endangered Species Act, the law that mandates environmental impact statements for large projects.  It was the foundation for the environmental protections we have today. Earth Day planted the seeds of my own work as a sustainability writer and advocate from the 1980s to today. 

A young man was there that day.  I’m sure he was on stage but I can’t say I recall him.  It was Denis Hayes, the first organizer of Earth Day.  He was travelling by train up the East Coast with Muskie, Ginsberg and the crew visiting different rallies. I later made my way to Seattle and came to know Denis as president of the Bullitt Foundation. Denis has wryly shared with me his ironic feelings about being primarily known for something he did in his 20s. But those in the know understand he’s done a lot more since. 

As Jimmy Carter’s solar energy head, Denis shaped what is now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  When Ronald Reagan came in to rip the solar panels Carter had installed off the White House roof and tear down the renewable energy programs Carter had started, Denis successfully preserved the core of the most important research efforts. We owe a great deal of today’s clean energy revolution to the seeds he planted, and saved. 

As president of Bullitt Foundation, Denis was a seminal funder of climate work in the Northwest, how I got to know him.  Safe to say without important start-up and continuing funding from Bullitt the regional climate movement would not be the powerful presence it is today.

Over recent years Denis led construction of the world’s greenest office building, the Bullitt Center, which generates its own energy from a solar roof and its own water from a rain-gathering system.  It is a true zero-energy building.  He also has a new book out, Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment.

Though most people might know Denis from Earth Day, clearly he’s never stopped being a sustainability pioneer.  So it was a pleasure to see him give a short talk at the Earth Day Climate Action Festival at Seattle Central College on this 45th Earth Day.  Under a sunny sky, and appropriately for the heavily youthful crowd, Denis called on a new generation to seize the day. 

"Today we’re talking about passing the torch to a new generation,” he started.  “That has probably never happened in history.”

Instead, the new generation is going to have to wrestle the torch out of the grasping fingers of those who hold it now.  Much as his and my generation had to seize its own day, “The new generation is going to have to struggle.” 

Denis overviewed the environmental crisis that was emerging in the years before the first Earth Day, pollution, pesticides, freeways ripping through cities, and compared it to China today.  These were national struggles that yielded national victories. 

“What you have facing you today is very different that what was facing us,” he noted.  “You’re addressing global issues,” such as climate, ocean acidification, overfishing, migratory species. To address these, “We have to come together not as a nation, but as a people.” 

Denis called to a moral obligation to stand up for the poorest. “Those who have done the least to change the planet will suffer the most.”

“The important stuff is always done by young people,” Denis said to the young crowd.  “This is not just a rally.  This is the beginning of a revolution.”

Truly we need as profound a global sustainability revolution as the environmental revolution spurred by the first Earth Day.  And many young people are coming to the fore to make it happen.  Denis is still in the fight, and so I am and many of our generation.  But it is the young who are our hope and inspiration.  You will seize the torch, and our aging bodies will keep up with you as long as we can.  Now as then – For the Earth. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Competing WA cap-and-trade ballot initiative? A modest proposal to stop the insanity

The rise of competing Washington state climate ballot initiatives has been in the cards for several years now. 

Last week, as reported in Cascadia Planet, Climate Solutions and Washington Environmental Council, the two Washington state environmental nonprofits leading the legislative charge for Gov. Jay Inslee’s carbon cap-and-trade bill, announced that they are considering running their own 2016 initiative if the governor’s bill fails.  That seems an increasingly likely outcome.

The initiative could well be a cap-and-trade, which is problematic for a number of reasons.  One is competition with a 2016 carbon tax ballot initiative already on the streets. Another is the sheer complexity of cap-and-trade.  Below I will delve into the pitfalls of a cap-and-trade initiative and offer a modest proposal to conduct complementary initiative efforts. 

Consideration of ballot initiatives far predates the governor's bill.  In 2012 and 2013 when I still served as Research Director of Climate Solutions, a group I helped found in 1998, talk of an initiative filled office meetings and staff retreats.  We were briefed on polling around different initiative options, and big funder money was in prospect.  Perhaps the biggest funder of all, California hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, raised the possibility of a ballot initiative in keynoters at major 2013 Climate Solutions fundraisers in Seattle and Portland. 

An independent effort was stirring though.  Frustrated with the failure of Climate Solutions and allied groups to pass meaningful climate policy, either in the state or nationally, economist Yorum Bauman was organizing Carbon Washington to join climate-concerned citizens around the idea of a carbon tax ballot initiative.  An alum of Sightline Institute, Bauman had in 1998 co-authored a book on the topic entitled Tax Shift with Sightline founder Alan Durning and Rachel Gusset.  It was about a concept pioneered at Worldwatch Institute, from which Durning had emerged, to shift the tax burden from what we want to encourage by taxing what we want to discourage.   Carbon pollution, for instance.

Of course, that aroused substantial tensions between the groups.  CarbonWA’s consideration of a 2014 ballot initiative stirred some heated discussions between leaders of the groups.  CarbonWA in the end opted against a 2014 run, instead continuing to organize and educate the public. 

Climate Solutions was meanwhile busy getting ready for a legislative push. In 2012 the prospect that Jay Inslee would be elected governor stirred great enthusiasm.  As a congressman, Inslee was one of Capitol Hill’s climate leaders.  As governor, it was thought, the guy who challenged Barack Obama to a basketball game (He’s told me the story) would rain down threes on the opposition in the state legislature and finally get a climate bill with teeth passed.  That would be in contrast to 2008, when the somewhat reticent Gov. Christine Gregoire did not push hard for a binding carbon cap, and so a bill that set only goals was passed.

It looked like that scenario would come about until in early 2013 two turncoat Democrats lined up with Republicans in the state senate, turning over control to the Rs and locking out the possibility of a carbon pricing bill.  For all we know, it was for precisely that reason that the two conservative Democrats sold off their party. 

Attention turned to the 2014 session, when it was thought a strong effort could turn the Senate back to the Democrats and re-open the legislative track.  Inslee was successful in gaining Senate Republican agreement for a public engagement process to set up for 2014, the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup, which held hearings around the state in 2013.  The four-member group included two Democratic climate action supporters, and two Republican legislators who are climate change deniers.  Predictably there was a majority and minority report. 

Then in 2014 Inslee appointed a group of citizens representing business, labor and public interests to serve on the Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce (CERT).  The governor’s instructions clearly pointed to a cap-and-trade system, in which carbon trading markets seek the lowest-cost carbon reductions.  Though the CERT report looked at both carbon tax and cap-and-trade options, the path was clearly toward the latter.  Inslee likes the certainty of a cap and is skeptical of the efficacy of carbon taxes.  If you’re going to limit carbon, you should limit carbon. Don’t bring a feather to a knife fight,” Inslee told Grist. 
As the CERT was meeting the political campaign was ramping up.  With support from Steyer and other high-net-worth funders, a number of Republican state senators thought to be vulnerable were targeted.  One funder told me that with a concerted get-out-the-vote effort up to six seats could be turned. But Democrats were fighting uphill in an off-year election in which Republican turnout tends to be higher.  It was also the sixth year of a presidential term in which the party of the president typically does not do well.  That was especially the case with Obama, whose policies had turned off the youth and ethnic voters who once flocked enthusiastically to his side.  When election day came in November dismal results in the U.S. Senate were paralleled in Washington state. Republicans stayed in control. 
Nonetheless, the legislative track had already been grooved too deeply to turn back.  In December Inslee proposed the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act, a cap-and-trade.  In an effort to win supporters on the Republican side he directed most revenues that would be raised in the carbon auction to education and road maintenance, two areas where the state faces genuine funding crises. 
To this date, Republicans have not taken the bait.  Demonstrating their allegiance to fossil fuel interests they have lined up solidly against the carbon cap, and even put a “poison pill” in a gas-tax-funded transportation package that would effectively make it impossible for Inslee to implement standards for lower-carbon fuels.  Perhaps the governor can still pull it out. But the clock is ticking down and he’s behind on the boards. 
Thus the initiative option being discussed at Climate Solutions and by allied groups comes into play.  Climate Solutions has spent significant resources and time building an impressive coalition to push climate action, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy.  The group line-up includes environmentalists, labor, ethnic community advocates and health advocates.  If a statewide initiative is to be passed, it will indeed require the progressive unity embodied in the Alliance.  It will also require the substantial grassroots citizen networks that have been assembled by CarbonWA.  Plus around twenty million or so bucks.  This is why it’s time to get together around something that works, and, with genuine respect for the governor, that is not a cap-and-trade ballot initiative. 
This is not about policy design.  It’s about politics.  Competing initiatives open vulnerabilities for the opposition to attack a climate movement that can't seem to get its stuff together.  Making one of them cap-and-trade amplifies the problem. Cap-and-trade is simply too complex a measure to present to voters at the ballot box, as the graphic accompanying this post illustrates. Try to explain that to voters when you are out gathering signatures, or running 30- and 60-second radio and TV adds.  It just doesn’t work. 

There’s an additional reason not to take cap-and-trade to the ballot.  Its complexity draws skepticism from many people, including sophisticated climate experts.  There is a reason 38 Washington state economists endorsed the far simpler revenue-neutral carbon tax forwarded in CarbonWA’s I-732.  Carbon trading markets hold many potentials for gaming, as has been documented with the European Union system.  Even the best systems require complex verification to prove that a offset purchased in a carbon market is actually reducing carbon.  Verification costs typically are in the 30 percent range. 
Yes, as the governor argues, we have learned from Europe and the California system with which Washington would align averts the pitfalls.  A logical case can be made, but reason does not rule political debate.  In politics, perception is reality, and a cap-and-trade initiative opens the door to creating all kinds of misperceptions. 
My last blog post on tensions between competing initiative efforts drew many positive comments and exactly two negative responses. One came from one of the governor’s closest climate policy advisors.  If your interest is establishing carbon pricing in Washington, this blog post is in no way helpful," he wrote. "But, on the bright side, I’m sure Frank Holmes enjoyed it immensely."
Holmes is Northwest regional director for Western States Petroleum Association, the lead oil industry lobby group in Olympia, and a devious and cunning bunch they are.  My response to the governor’s advisor was that a cap-and-trade initiative would be a gift to Frank Holmes and the Koch Brothers.   The opposition forces will have the “job-killing energy tax” charge to use against any carbon pricing measure.  With cap-and-trade they will have an additional attack vector. They will also be able to paint the carbon trading market as a Goldman Sachs-friendly vampire squid in the face of climate policy, a blood funnel to suck money to Wall Street.  They will use neo-populist arguments to wedge off the many progressive constituencies already skeptical about cap-and-trade.   All they other side has to do is create confusion.  The oil industry and the Kochs are world-class masters in the dark art of throwing shade, and cap-and-trade presents many juicy opportunities to do just this. 
I think if we get anywhere it’s with something simple like I-732, a straight-up tax on carbon pollution that recycles the revenues to reduce sales taxes one percent, fund a credit for working families and eliminate business & occupation taxes on manufacturers, helping them defray competitive pressures from higher energy prices. 
I understand the attraction of a cap-and-trade initiative framed as “Polluters Pay,” putting costs on major industrial and institutional carbon emitters as the governor’s bill does and an initiative would likely do.  But voters are not fools.  They realize that costs will be passed on.  We all use fossil fuels, and it is indeed the effect of generally higher prices that spurs a shift to efficiency and clean energy alternatives. We can’t pretend otherwise. As well, polluters are also employers, and people are nervous about their jobs. 
So let me make a modest proposal to thread this needle, one that allows different initiative efforts to proceed in a complementary rather than competitive fashion.  First, I am told by one of the state process insiders that their initiative is “not necessarily” cap and trade.  That is good because it opens the door to other options. 
One might be a cap-and-auction in which polluters must buy permits for all carbon they emit.  There is no trading market, just an auction that sets the price.  Revenues can be recycled back to taxpayers or devoted to other expenditures such as clean energy.  Sen. Maria Cantwell’s CLEAR Act does both.
The problem is it still sets up a competition among different policy designs.  Even experts find the hermeneutics of policy design a brain twister.  Voters will simply boggle on it and fossil fuel interests will use it to create confusion. 
Instead, here is my suggestion – Have the carbon pricing policy design of a second initiative mimic I-732.  Make it a carbon tax that starts at $15/ton, goes up to $25/ton in the second year and then rises with inflation.  Let the contrast between the two initiatives not be in policy design, but in how carbon revenues are spent – fully recycled to a tax shift, or partially recycled with some of the money going to public investments, perhaps in education, transit and green jobs. Don’t argue about policy design. Make it a referendum that lets Washington citizens choose between two sets of objectives based on the merits.  If both win, make the initiative with the higher margin the one that is implemented.
Yes, I agree with the governor that Washington needs a binding carbon cap.  A carbon tax is one pricing system that can meet a cap.  The British Columbia revenue-neutral carbon tax has achieved something like a 10 percent emissions reduction, which the governor’s proposal would not reach until the mid-2020s.  So we have some time to give carbon taxes a test drive to see how they work in Washington.  As people become comfortable with carbon pricing and see that it works and produces economic benefits for them, the political atmosphere to pass a binding state carbon cap will improve.  Then it can be done in the legislature, where such a complex measure should be handled, not at the ballot box. 
There is an argument that carbon taxes will have to be dialed up very high to meet state carbon goals by the 2030s.  The CERT report contains modeling that indicates this.  But the modeling does not take into account technology change in a clean energy field that is racing forward beyond all expectations.  We are on the threshold of truly cost-competitive solar and wind power, energy storage and electric vehicles.  These developments could well magnify the price-tipping effects of carbon taxes beyond what is projected. Let's at least give it a try. 
It is time to draw back from a potentially destructive competition between initiative processes and work in a complementary fashion.  There are genuinely good arguments to be made for different options, and we should give voters a chance to weigh those arguments.  A friendly competition around destinations for carbon revenues is far preferable to a mind-boggling debate over policy design that will turn off voters.  Let’s go for a simple design that can be easily explained to voters, and work for a legislatively-enacted carbon cap in the longer term, based on success at the ballot box.  Since CarbonWA’s signature gathering is taking place in 2015, while a second initiative would stage that process in 2016, it is even conceivable the same citizens will be carrying signature boards for both.
If all the participants in the process care about stabilizing the climate and leaving a habitable world for our children and theirs, and I know you all do, it’s time to work out a mutual pathway that addresses all concerns.  Please consider my modest proposal. 


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Environmental nonprofits seek to kill citizens’ climate initiative

Climate Solutions and the Washington Environmental Council are trying to kill Carbon Washington’s carbon tax ballot initiative before it gets off the ground. 

The two groups, the driving force behind the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy now supporting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s carbon cap-and-trade bill in the legislature, this past week sent out email broadsides decrying the Carbon Washington initiative even as CarbonWA is beginning to ramp up a citizen-driven signature effort for its newly minted Initiative 732.  Trying to dampen enthusiasm for the measure, Climate Solutions and WEC say they are ready to run an initiative of their own if current legislative efforts fail. 

The Inslee bill, the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act, is already on life support. House Democrats threw the plan under the bus weeks ago when they proposed a 2015-17 state budget without carbon revenues Inslee would raise through a carbon emissions auction market.    Facing a Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican caucus solidly lined up against carbon pricing, the House Dems were unwilling to fall on their sword for the governor.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, “who is the point person for Inslee’s plan in the House . . . said the bill fell a few votes below the 50 House Democratic supporters in behind-the-scenes discussions needed to guarantee that it would pass,” John Stang reported in Crosscut.

Ironically, its best chance for revival is politician fear of the CarbonWA initiative, as Stang reports in a Thursday article, Carbon tax: Rising from the ashes in Olympia?
Stang writes, “ . . . legislators have looked at signature gathering by the group Carbon Washington to put Initiative 732 on the 2016 ballot . . . The prospect of a blunt initiative rather than a more nuanced bill has prompted legislators to huddle about Inslee’s carbon emissions tax proposal, said Fitzgibbon.”

That notwithstanding, the CarbonWA effort drew only brickbats in email blasts from Climate Solutions and Washington Environmental Council (WEC).
“You may have heard about another group of activists, Carbon WA, that is also considering a ballot measure on carbon pollution,” wrote Climate Solutions Washington Director Jessica Finn Coven and Executive Director Gregg Small Friday. “We are not working to support that ballot measure because our focus now is on seeing through this current legislative session and continuing to build the powerful movement that we need to win  . . . Indeed, we are waging the legislative battle so that, win or lose, we have built momentum and a movement for a possible initiative.   But it’s too early to pull up stakes in Olympia.” 

The last two lines constitute a not-so-subtle dig at CarbonWA and its supporters who, by implication, have "pulled up the stakes" on a process they see likely to go nowhere.  It is also a blatant attempt to depress citizen signature gathering in the vital first two or more months of the effort.  Finn Coven and Small well know the legislative session is likely to last into June.  But don't worry, they say, we'll have our own initiative if we fail in Olympia.

The day before, WEC President Becky Kelley set up the issue with a more direct attack on CarbonWA.
There’s also action from another climate group right now, CarbonWA, that’s proposing a ballot measure on climate change. Unfortunately, they lack the broad base of support needed to move something this big.  

Movement building is hard, intentional work. The Alliance is doing that work—building a broad coalition that is working together to develop an effective and equitable policy to reduce global warming pollution and strengthen our communities and economy. Conversely, CarbonWA has predetermined its policy and is now seeking to build support for its proposal.”

Kelley downplays the fact that CarbonWA has been building grassroots citizen support and developing their ideas for several years now.  The policy was “predetermined” by extensive conversations among many climate-concerned citizens. That CarbonWA has its initiative firmed and on the street while the nonprofits are still only talking about it only indicates CarbonWA has already done much more legwork.  In fact, a network of locally-rooted climate groups is already ramping up to gather signatures across the state.  Yes, unlike big Seattle nonprofits such as Climate Solutions and WEC, they do not have multi-million-dollar budgets, staffs of paid political professionals or big networks of high net-worth donors.  What they do have is passion and soul, as well as impatience with insider groups that have stacked up an impressive record of failure to pass meaningful climate policy, both at the state and federal level. 

In 2008 Climate Solutions and WEC were the lead groups in passing a state carbon cap with no teeth.  A weak state Democrat leadership would only accept non-binding carbon reduction goals. That was at a time when Democrats had firm control of both Legislative houses.  Predictably the environmental nonprofits proclaimed bill passage a great victory.  But in fact its weakness was pivotal in the collapse of the Western Climate Initiative, a multi-state alliance led by California to spread carbon caps through western states. 

In 2009-10 Climate Solutions was the lead in efforts across four Northwest states to gain congressional delegation support for the Waxman-Markey federal carbon cap-and-trade bill.  The effort collapsed in July 2010 when the bill could not make it to the Senate floor.  Again the Democrats had substantial majorities, but the Obama White House was unwilling to take up the cause, and fossil-fuel-state Democrats lined up with the Republicans to kill the bill.

It is a tragedy that the U.S. does not have a comprehensive national climate law.  But it is far from tragic that particular bill was not enacted. As Naomi Klein writes in here recent climate book, This Changes Everything,  failure to pass that bill “should not be seen, as it often is, as the climate movement’s greatest defeat, but rather as a narrowly dodged bullet.” One of the Climate Solutions campaign leaders later confessed to me, “Toward the end we were uncertain of the value of what we were promoting." As well he should have been. Stuffed to the gills with subsidies for nuclear power and “clean coal,” it was tied to a carbon offset market that would have let coal plant operators continue polluting with minimal reductions into the 2020s.  The bill came to include a bar on state and local governments enforcing their own carbon caps.  Even support for offshore oil drilling came into the Senate bill.  All in all it was a barely digestible, hairball-filled piece of legislative sausage. 

That brings us to the present.  For the past several years Climate Solutions and allies have been setting up the "West Coast Agenda."  It frames passage of climate legislation in Washington state and Oregon as a way to  put carbon policy back on the national table through forming a solid coastal climate block.  California already has an operating cap-and-trade and British Columbia has a revenue-neutral carbon tax much as CarbonWA is proposing.  All revenues are recycled to tax reductions or to help for low-income families deal with higher energy prices. But with Republican control of both houses of Congress and the climate debate even more partisanized than in 2009-10, it is hard to see when carbon pricing again becomes a serious option on Capitol Hill.  Maybe in the 2020s, after ice vanishes from the summer Arctic Ocean.

Nonetheless, carbon pricing at the state and provincial level is a worthy end in itself, and so the political debate should be joined.  The Inslee plan has drawn broad support, including among many activists who favor an “all of the above” approach and are supporting both the governor and CarbonWA.  Even though many are unhappy with the sausage the governor cooked up to get the bill passed.  Most of the carbon revenues go to education and road repair.  Education is a good cause, but needs a better long-term source of funding than fossil fuels, which we should be trying to eliminate as fast as possible.  The governor’s plan bars use of carbon revenues for road expansion, but by freeing up gas tax revenues it in effect facilitates transportation megaprojects.  Inslee, who wrote a book about launching a clean energy revolution called Apollo’s Fire is in as good a position as anyone to know his plan is no moonshot.

The issue in Washington state, though, seems to be less about which is the best policy design – carbon tax or cap-and-trade – than about insider political calculus.  I gained the full download from a Climate Solutions leader who called to try to persuade me not to endorse the CarbonWA initiative. 

His argument can be summarized in three points:
·      The political professionals have looked at the initiative and its polling numbers and concluded it can’t win.
·      It will take $15-20 million to pass the initiative, and with these kind of numbers the big-money funders will not come to the table.
·      The initiative could lose, and lose big, dragging down Jay Inslee’s 2016 reelection effort – This has the inside baseball players particularly worried.

Thus it is not surprising that House Democrats are taking a second look at the Inslee bill.  They fear the political fallout. 

The Climate Solutions leader confirmed that, indeed, the political professionals are trying to strangle the CarbonWA baby in its crib before it can gain substantial momentum.  Thus the blasts this week from Climate Solutions and WEC, even as CarbonWA was announcing its first citizen petition-gatherer trainings. 

My response to my old Climate Solutions colleague – I was a founder of the group and served there until 2013 as Research Director – is that I just don’t believe the political professionals or the business as usual political model anymore. I can no longer subscribe to the insider political calculus that has led the climate movement from defeat unto defeat. The messages of the email blasts, “a winning strategy” from WEC and “An alliance to win climate action” from Climate Solutions, stand in ironic counterpoint to the record lined out above. 

The case made by both the groups is that they have spent substantial time building the alliance needed to pass climate policy, if not in the Legislature, then at the ballot box.  They have assembled a broad coalition of traditionally progressive advocacy, labor and faith groups.  But it is hard to see how another legislative defeat builds much momentum.  This is particularly the case when in your first shot you alienate the substantial network of climate-concerned citizens already rallying for CarbonWA, essentially calling them irresponsible children who should bow before the serious political adults who run the big groups.   The email blasts sent out this week set up a substantial schism and bad feeling in the broader climate community when unity is needed. 

It should also be noted the Climate Solutions-WEC led Alliance has its own internal tensions.  There is definite dissatisfaction on the social justice side of the table that the Inslee plan did not include substantial funding for green jobs.  As well, an insider-outsider dynamic has some groups wondering how much they will really be at the table when a ballot initiative is designed. Knowing how it works from the inside, they have good cause for concern. 

There was a strong subtext in what my old Climate Solutions colleague told me – that the big money funders are unwilling to support real, grassroots citizen organizing that could move poll numbers.  Organizing such as CarbonWA has undertaken and is undertaking.  There are 18 full months and some days before the 2016 election.  CarbonWA has some money and is bringing on seven organizers to rally citizen signature gatherers.  If substantial funding came on the table now, it would leverage far greater efforts, people-to-people communications in neighborhoods and communities.  The most credible source of messages is familiar faces, not TV screens.

Unfortunately the big nonprofits seem to lack a vision for real grassroots organizing.  “Grassroots” in their eyes means sending professional canvassers into an area to knock on doors.  I know because I have been in on the discussions.  Grassroots means much more.  It means building networks of locally-based climate groups, circles of active citizens who talk about climate to their friends, neighbors, and workmates, to fellow members of churches, civic organizations and softball teams.  Such a people power movement is what it’s going to take to overcome the inevitable deluge of fossil fuel money that will come up against any initiative. This is exactly the kind of people power movement CarbonWA is building. 

So I am doing here what my old Climate Solutions colleague tried to persuade me not to do.  I am saying no to the political insiders and yes to the CarbonWA initiative, and will be joining the citizens’ climate army gathering signatures this spring, summer and fall.  I am not endorsing the initiative because it’s my ideal climate policy – It’s not.  Druthers I would rather see a portion of carbon revenues directly invested in clean energy and land-based carbon storage. I am endorsing it because it’s what we have right now, not something we may have months down the line designed by groups who have fed us some pretty questionable sausage over the years.  And unlike the political insiders I think a solid citizen-led effort has as good a chance to win as anything they are likely to propose. 

The revenue-neutral carbon tax has become the policy of choice for the climate grassroots.  From the Citizens Climate Lobby to James Hansen to CarbonWA and its compatriot, Oregon Climate, this is the only carbon pricing policy that draws much grassroots enthusiasm.  Cap-and-trade, such as the governor proposes and could well be the design of a Climate Solutions-WEC initiative, is widely distrusted for its gaming potential.  Even if advocates can make a logical argument their proposal avoids these pitfalls, logic is not what politics is about.  Perception is, and cap-and-trade is not well perceived.

The CarbonWA proposal has a strong equity argument.  It would reshuffle tax revenues by cutting sales tax one percent and funding a tax credit for around a half-million of the state’s lowest income families. In doing this it would reduce imbalances in Washington state’s most-regressive-in-the-nation tax system more than any measure since food sales taxes were repealed in 1977.  As the accompanying chart shows, the lower on the income spectrum the greater the tax bite.  The initiative's tax shifting would have tremendous general benefit, especially toward the bottom rungs.   

Based on the BC experience, the CarbonWA measure would generate significant carbon reductions.  The tax came on line in 2008 at $10 per carbon tonne and has now risen to $30.  Since BC has a largely hydropower electricity base, the tax has its prime impact on vehicle fuel.  By 2012 the tax had reduced BC fuel use 16%, stacked against a comparable rise of 3% across the rest of Canada.  This is even as BC was growing faster than the rest of the nation.  Even though fuel use has risen a bit with lower gas prices, it is still substantially below what it would be without the tax. Meanwhile the tax offset $760 million in taxes to give BC residents Canada’s lowest personal income tax rates. 

So I am calling on my fellow climate-concerned citizens to surge onto the streets to gain the 315,000 needed signatures this spring, summer and fall.  If enough signatures are gained quickly enough, perhaps we can avoid the folly of competing climate initiatives, and with that the danger the opposition will be able to charge, “These climate people can’t even agree among themselves.  So why should we believe them?”

A surge of signatures that successfully gains ballot placement will also push funders to support the measure for exactly the reason they are scared of it now.  They cannot afford a 2016 ballot loss.  They do not want anything that could drag down the governor. So confronted with a citizen-led fait accompli they will have little choice but to support it.

In my years at Climate Solutions I had a front row seat to several of the big defeats.  I saw how gaining sign-ons from business leaders and support from “grasstops” funders was not enough to win the day.  Despite the broad organizing this time around, the group and its allies are still on the way to another legislative defeat.  If they can pull it out, I will happily celebrate their victory.  But for now, even with pressure from CarbonWA on legislators, it’s not looking great. 

A heartening development has taken place since the 2010 federal climate debacle. Naomi Klein in her book documents how that effort was built on “grasstops” organizing among business and other leaders.  I recall it well. But since then the climate movement has sprouted a genuine grassroots of concerned citizens operating on a volunteer basis in locally organized groups.  They are the people acting for divestment from fossil fuel stocks, engaging in direct action and mounting citizen ballot initiative efforts such as those of CarbonWA. 

It is time for some humble reflection on the part of Climate Solutions, WEC and allied groups on why you have lost so often, and some due respect for grassroots citizens who are driven by passion and concern rather than poll numbers and insider calculations of funder politics.  No matter how much money you have, it will take a citizen army to win the game at the ballot box.  CarbonWA is building that army.  I hope you take some pointers and consider how you can support the overall success of the climate movement.  It will not be by trying to monopolize the issue for your own groups. You need the grassroots.  Get out from behind your computers and conference tables, get out of your offices and connect.  You might find, as I have, some cause for hope.