Friday, May 15, 2015

Citizen-led WA ballot initiative pushes politician climate action

If Washington Gov. Jay Inslee manages to pass his carbon cap proposal this legislative session, he will owe a debt of gratitude to Carbon Washington and its effort to place a carbon tax on the ballot.

Democratic House members this week revived Inslee’s proposal in a modified form after having run away from it in the regular session.  The House may finally stand up for a climate bill, a vital necessity to have carbon revenues considered in budget negotiations with Senate Republicans. 

This apparently would not have happened without climate action pressure from grassroots activists now seeking 315,000 signatures to place CarbonWA’s I-732 on the November 2016 ballot.  A critical point is that climate-denier Republicans are not the only hurdle to putting a price on carbon pollution. 

“Democrats have not been able to publicly say that they have the 50 votes to guarantee passage,” John Stang reported in Crosscut.  “However, Democratic leaders and Inslee have been . . . trying to create a package that would gain 50 votes out of 98 House members. Legislators have looked warily at signature gathering by the group Carbon Washington . . . I-732 would install a $25-per-ton tax on carbon emissions beginning July 1, 2017 — a much more drastic approach than proposed by Inslee and his Democratic supporters.”

Stang last month was the first to report on prospects for a carbon package revival.  “The prospect of a blunt initiative rather than a more nuanced bill has prompted legislators to huddle about Inslee’s carbon emissions tax proposal . . . “

Passing any climate ballot initiative in 2016 will require a massive public education campaign on the need for carbon pricing to rapidly move clean energy forward.  That campaign should start now.

The package announced Monday clearly points to where Democratic support must be bolstered. The message is in re-allocation of proposed carbon revenues.  For coastal and rural Democrats, over $280 million in forest industry benefits plus a $10,000 tax credit for each new employee hired for at least six months.  For business-friendly centrist Democrats, new rebates of $333 million to the fuel industry and more for other industries to offset higher energy costs (even though this reduces the incentive to switch to clean energy or use energy more efficiently).  The package would also increase education funding to $500 million annually, exceeding the $380 million originally proposed by Inslee, building support broadly in the Democratic caucus.

The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, the coalition of groups supporting the Inslee bill, is also creating some pressure by announcing it is considering its own 2016 initiative effort.  But it will not announce a decision until fall.  Because the Alliance is working closely with Inslee and state legislators, a nuanced initiative similar to the current package can be expected.  CarbonWA, with its outright $25/ton price on all carbon emissions, recycling all revenues to taxpayers in the form of tax reductions and credits, seems to be the more potent driver of politician concern.

CarbonWA is definitely picking up momentum.  It just received the endorsement of Ron Sims, who positioned King County as one of the nation’s climate leaders when he was executive. “I strongly support the Carbon Washington revenue-neutral carbon tax ballot measure. It is a bipartisan approach that will reduce carbon emissions, make our state tax code less regressive, and protect manufacturing jobs. We are running out of time to address the growing threat of global climate disruption. Let’s all work together to pass Initiative 732.”

Also just announced are endorsements by Mike McGinn, former Seattle mayor and Sierra Club leader, and Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata. I-732 in addition recently added 350 Seattle and Resources for Sustainable Communities to the list of citizen group endorsers. 

The revival of the climate bill in Olympia speaks volumes about the need for grassroots climate pressure on Democratic Party electeds.  For sure there are some genuine climate champions.  But politicians are caught in a constant crossfire between many interests, business, labor, civic groups, social justice advocates.  Climate is easily lost in the shuffle unless there is an active and vocal citizen presence willing to take matters into its own hands. 

That is what Carbon Washington has done.  CarbonWA is doing this with an organizing model based on working with local climate-oriented groups such as Climate Action Bainbridge and Climate Action Olympia, and building new local groups where there are none.  This granular, social organizing approach plants a climate movement deeply rooted in communities, shaped from circles of active and caring citizens.  Once planted these circles can work on climate from multiple angles, from direct democracy to direct action.  That seems to be the typical pattern. 

The major danger confronting citizen climate politics in Washington state has been the prospect of competing initiatives.  It has created tensions between the groups, as reported in Cascadia Planet here and here.  This has caused concerns among many climate movement people caught in between.  They have expressed those concerns to the groups. That has had a beneficial effect, a joint statement by the groups announced May 4. 

“Our organizations are committed to working together, and in particular we are committed to avoiding two competing carbon pollution-pricing measures on the ballot in November 2016,” the statement says.  The two groups will work together on public opinion research to determine the most viable strategy. 

The statement concluded, “Because of the ongoing activities of both groups, we are not currently endorsing each other’s efforts. But we have no objections to individuals or groups supporting or working with either or both groups (or making a joint endorsement). We respect each other’s efforts to build a strong movement for climate action and will stay in close contact in the months ahead as the Alliance completes its research work and as Carbon Washington moves forward with its signature-gathering campaign for I-732.”

This represents significant progress.  Alliance members had been sending negative messages about I-732, both public and private.  That proved unacceptable to many people, and the Alliance proved responsive.  Now a prospectively more consultative relationship is developing.  It is hard to say how the two groups will thread the needle if indeed CarbonWA is successful in gaining enough signatures to place I-732 on the ballot.  But at least the two groups are talking to each other now, which is what climate-concerned citizens were demanding.

There is room for further collaboration.  If any climate initiative is to make it against the deluge of fossil fuel money that would be thrown against it in 2016, a massive public campaign should be undertaken now.  We should not wait until fall or 2016. The campaign should focus the promise of clean energy and climate solutions to create a better world and healthier economy. Such a campaign can and should be agnostic on the specific carbon pricing tools, whether a direct tax or a cap-and-trade.  But it should make the carbon pricing connection, how a price on carbon is needed to tip the balance to clean energy rapidly enough to avoid disastrous global warming.  

A public campaign should include everything – social media, earned media, public meetings, outreach to civic groups, developing and providing educational materials to citizen groups of all sorts.  It should empower volunteers to act, and seek to be viral.  It should reach into every community.  

The Better Future Project has built one of the nation’s more successful public engagement models.  Organizing 350 Massachusetts since 2012, Better Future has provided the paid staff infrastructure that has joined hundreds of citizen volunteers working through nine community nodes around the state. They are engaged in a series of campaigns both to keep fossil fuels in the ground and bring on clean energy solutions.  Efforts have shut down all coal plants in the state, and supported offshore wind development.  Citizens are opposing a gas pipeline and forwarding state divestment from fossil fuels. 

People power is what it’s going to take to win the climate struggle, people on the ground talking to their neighbors, presenting to local groups, being a face-to-face climate presence in their communities. But volunteers can’t do it all on their own.  They need materials, training and guidance. The combined resources of the Alliance and CarbonWA can provide what citizens need to propel a public education campaign

It is now 16 months and some days until the November 2016 election. Let’s get a deep-rooted, citizen-driven public campaign going now to demonstrate the viability of clean energy and the need for carbon pricing to rapidly drive it forward.  There is no time to waste.

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