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. 


  1. Thank you Patrick - well said. It is important that we all work together to achieve a sustainable future. Rod

  2. Great analysis Patrick. It's a shame that we constantly find ourselves fighting sellouts like Climate Solutions and WEC. They've tied themselves so tightly to promises of money and influence from feckless neoliberals that they're completely clueless how out of touch with the true grassroots they've really become.

    It's a sad example of the true business of climate change.

  3. If the governor's plan fails, we should support CarbonWA, instead of starting from scratch.

  4. It is disappointing to learn that Climate Solutions and WEC are considering opposing the CarbonWA initiative.

    Here is one more bit of evidence they have it wrong: "Carbon Tax Polling Milestone: 2/3 Support if Revenue-Neutral" []

    1. Yes, Rob, totally agree. Whereas I think a cap-and-trade ballot initiative is a potential political disaster. I will be posting on that before long.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.