Wednesday, December 23, 2015

WA state climate initiative conflict on road to resolution?

Update:  The answer to the headline question is apparently no, at least for now.  An alternative climate initiative proposal similar to Carbon Washington’s carbon tax, but investing revenues in actions to deal with climate change instead of using them for tax cuts and credits, was rejected by the CarbonWA Executive Committee later in the day on Dec. 23.  

Yoram Bauman of Carbon Washington sent this message: “Our Executive Committee met today and discussed an updated (more detailed) version of the alternative proposal. We debated the issues and considered arguments on both sides raised by the Executive Committee and by our grassroots base. After almost 3 hours it became clear that the Executive Committee would not accept the alternative proposal in its current form and that there was no chance of modifying the alternative proposal in the very short time frame remaining that would change the Executive Committee's decision.”

CarbonWA leadership received hundreds of comments regarding the proposal, which could have led to unification of climate movement forces around a single November 2016 ballot initiative.  Many comments were unfavorable to the idea and pressed to move forward with CarbonWA’s Initiative 732.  It appears that the organization will now file its 350,000 signatures in a few days and gain ballot placement.

This leaves more questions than answers.  Will 732 be able to draw sufficient resources to pass? Will the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy mount a second climate initiative?  Can we close the divide that has opened up in the Washington state climate movement?  All unknowns.  What this set of events does show is that CarbonWA built a powerful momentum that could not be stopped or re-directed, even though a significant element of its leadership favored moving in a different direction.  Citizen’s movements take on lives of their own.

I was on the losing side of this argument, but I still think it’s valid, and so I will leave the article standing as is. (PM)

It’s been a bumpy political ride in Washington state climate ballot initiative politics over the past year, but after all is said and done the product might the most winnable and effective November 2016 climate ballot measure. 

The break came Monday with an email and blog post from Carbon Washington co-founder Yoram Bauman regarding its Initiative 732 carbon tax signature-gathering campaign.  We are on the fence about whether or not to turn in our 350,000 signatures because of the emergence of an alternative proposal.”

The CarbonWA board will make the decision between now and Dec. 30. Even though holding back signatures in a successful initiative campaign would be unprecedented, I am throwing my support behind a decision to do so.  This is because the proposal that is emerging has the best chance of overcoming the substantial obstacles that will be put in its way.  The potential is in sight to heal a fractious divide between the grassroots climate initiative and a coalition of progressive organizations aiming at its own ballot measure, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy.  With unity will come the resources and people power needed to put a climate initiative across the finish line.

Even with unified forces, passing a carbon pricing measure at the ballot box is going to be a tough uphill fight.  If Washington achieves this, it will be a global first for any state or province, let alone nation.  Success means overcoming huge fossil fuel industry funding and the historic reluctance of state voters to approve new revenues. Climate community divisions have threatened to sink any ballot measure.

With unity the imperative for any chance of success, I outlined five scenarios to achieve it in a recent Cascadia Planet post.  Scenario #1, CarbonWA withholding signatures and undertaking a unified campaign, began to publicly play out this week.  As anticipated, it came with some pushback from within CarbonWA ranks.  Responses to the blog and in a Tuesday night conference call were mixed.  Some cried betrayal. Distrust of the Alliance, a legacy sown by the year’s conflicts, was strongly in evidence.  But sentiment in support of a unified effort seemed evenly represented.

What moved CarbonWA was polling it did in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy that strengthened a finding in earlier surveys by Alliance-affiliated groups. I-732 did even worse in a poll it helped design than in earlier polls conducted by its opponents. The revenue-neutral carbon tax design of CarbonWA’s Initiative 732 does not poll as well as an alternative measure that invests carbon revenues in clean energy development, clean water and healthy forests.  The odds for passage of the latter are better.  Polling finds that even conservatives and moderates are more swayed by clean energy investments than the tax cuts and credits promised under I-732. (The numbers are in Bauman’s post linked above.)  That and a failure to gain traction among business interests and Republicans swayed CarbonWA leadership to consider alternatives.

Clean energy investments draw support from across the political spectrum.

It makes sense that the way to pass a revenue measure is by associating it with concrete improvements.  A revenue-neutral carbon tax is, let’s face it, a fairly wonky and abstract proposition.  And revenue neutrality has always suffered from voter skepticism that tax cuts will be permanent.  The fear of a “bait-and-switch” is strongest among the conservative and centrist voters to whom revenue-neutrality is meant to appeal.  On the other hand, voters prove consistently willing to vote for revenue measures attached to specific stuff they can see, such as levies for schools and parks.  Clean energy has support across the spectrum, a proposition validated by the recent polling.

Another problem facing the I-732 revenue-neutral proposal is a state fiscal analysis indicating that it might actually be revenue-negative, causing a net loss to state revenues.  Democratic legislators have put up a stern wall of resistance to any such prospect.  CarbonWA contests the analysis, but nonetheless it represents an uncertainty hard to overcome.

Though CarbonWA ranks include many that genuinely believe revenue-neutrality is the way to win conservative and centrist voters, I-732 drew as much support as it did because it offered the only viable carbon pricing measure on the table.  Now that an alternative is emerging, it is likely to pull the vast bulk of I-732 supporters behind it.

One key reason I support the alternative is because it represents a substantial victory for the grassroots climate activist upsurge represented by the CarbonWA campaign. The victory is real. As a condition of withholding their signatures, CarbonWA has secured a commitment from key environmental nonprofits at the core of the Alliance that there will be a carbon pricing measure on the November 2016 ballot. 

Even though the Alliance had announced its intent to run an initiative, it was by no means a certainty.  There was still hemming and hawing over viability and poll numbers within Alliance leadership ranks, as there had been for months.  This was a significant reason why the Alliance did not file its own initiative to the legislature last spring when the governor’s climate bill, which it had been backing, was heading for defeat.  As I wrote in my five scenarios piece, CarbonWA had a much better sense of the climate streets and knew there was energy to carry a grassroots initiative campaign forward.  The group seized the early mover advantage, and achieved signature-gathering and fundraising success exceeding even its own expectations. 

Presented with the fait accompli, groups including Climate Solutions and Washington Environmental Council have been in talks with CarbonWA.  On the table are a campaign governance structure in which they and CarbonWA have equal weight, and an “insurance policy,” the deposit of funds sufficient for Carbon WA to re-run a petition campaign next year based on paid signature gatherers if the other parties do not carry through on their commitments.  Volunteers would not be asked to carry the signature-gathering load again.

Substantial concessions have also been made on policy design, and this is my major reason for swinging behind the alternative.  Unlike the governor’s bill and one of the options considered by the Alliance, it is not a cap and trade, but a straight-up carbon fee with set rates.  Whatever one’s views on cap and trade, effective climate policy or false solution, it never was a good idea to present such a complex proposal to voters.  Divisions in the progressive community over cap and trade plus the fossil fuel industry’s capacity to distort the issue made it particularly vulnerable.  Because of this, I was always skeptical about a political process that would even consider a cap and trade ballot measure as a serious option.  It just seemed that otherwise smart people were not drawing obvious conclusions.

That drew me to the simplified carbon tax of I-732.  It could be explained to voters in a fairly straightforward way.  A tax rate set under law, $25 per carbon ton after two years, would fund a one-percent sales tax cut, a Working Families Tax Credit and elimination of the B&O tax for manufacturers in order to keep them competitive.  It was a classic shift of taxes on goods to taxes on “bads,” in this case carbon pollution, a revenue-neutral system suggested by many experts since the 1980s. 

But, as someone who has studied and worked on climate policy for many years, revenue-neutral was not my ideal. I supported and gathered signatures for I-732 because the top priority is to discourage fossil fuel use by making it pay for its consequences.  What to do with the revenues came in second.  Nonetheless, it is a highly important second. Overcoming the climate crisis will require significant public investments.  It makes sense to fund investments with carbon revenues.  This will reduce carbon pollution to a greater degree than a pure revenue-neutral design.

The alternative proposal that is emerging makes such investments. As of this point, it is still a work in progress.  Assuming the final form substantially reflects the proposal, it is worthy of support. The measure is called a fee rather than a tax, because under the law a fee can be directed to specific programs whereas a tax cannot.  The early fee rate could be lower than I-732’s initial tax, but grow at a faster rate. Revenues would be devoted, in priority order, to:
  •       Investments in clean energy and energy efficiency
  •       Investments in clean water to adapt to climate impacts on state water resources
  •       Investments in healthy forests
  •       Tax credits to mitigate the impact of higher energy prices on the lower 40% of families
  •       Transition for workers affected by carbon pricing such as refinery workers.

In addition, a requirement that a certain level of funds be invested in disadvantaged communities is part of the alternative.

These investments are likely to allay the concerns of social justice and labor groups that have caused them to oppose revenue-neutral I-732.  They have been strong advocates for the kind of funding envisioned in the alternative. The capacity of the alternative to re-unify these groups with the grassroots forces of the I-732 campaign is one of the most compelling reasons to go for it. 

I will throw down one big caveat.  The forest health piece would allow funding of forest thinning to reduce fire fuels and wildfires. It should not because thinning is generally not a carbon win. Because wildfires largely burn tree surfaces, even large wildfires leave the bulk of carbon on the ground. 

One study finds,  “Although fuel-reduction treatments may be necessary to restore historical functionality to fire-suppressed ecosystems, we found little credible evidence that such efforts have the added benefit of increasing terrestrial (carbon) stocks . . . Carbon losses incurred with fuel removal generally exceed what is protected from combustion should the treated area burn. Even among fire-prone forests, one must treat about ten locations to influence future fire behavior in a single location.”

The forest health provision of any alternative should be written to support only measures documented to actually increase forest carbon storage such as conservation easements and long-rotation forestry.  This will draw universal support from forest advocates, whereas support for forest health thinning will open an avenue of opposition.

I concluded my five scenarios piece with these words: “We should regard it as a triumph that so many people and groups are coming to the climate table firmly committed to take action.  We should all acknowledge each other as people of good will, and seek the best possible outcomes.  We can ill afford a climate policy train wreck.  Let’s do all we possibly can to avert one.”

Both sides of the past year’s climate initiative conflict have indeed shown good will and a common commitment to a win that would be unprecedented – popular ballot approval to create a carbon policy framework.  It is heartening to see people rise above conflicts to seek the undoubted common interest in climate victory.  Coming days will show whether their efforts have born success. 

Make your own comments to or to the CarbonWA blog.