Strong alliances are crucial to success: Lessons learned after state carbon tax defeat
By Stephanie Doyle
Washington state rejected the United States’ first carbon tax in a blur of lessons, on an election night that was shocking for both sides of the aisle. The ballot measure, which was led by grassroots organization Carbon Washington, lost with 42% of the votes for and 58% against.
As CCL works toward passing a national carbon tax in 2017, the fight for I-732 offers a lot of lessons. Many issues were at play at the state level and can help inform our approach to a national carbon price.
A map from the New York Times shows that only two counties, King and San Juan, supported I-732. In both counties the counts were extremely close, revealing the deep divide that had occurred in the months leading up to the vote, where many environmentalists organizations and climate justice groups came out strongly against I-732.
The reasons for opposition were mixed. Some groups felt I-732 didn’t go far enough to support clean energy development—the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy proposed their own policy as an alternative. Others feared I-732 would burden people of color and low-income communities.
These and other objections are explored in depth by David Roberts at Vox and many others, but the biggest takeaway is that every stakeholder needs to be considered in the formation of a carbon tax proposal. In order to successfully pass a price on carbon, a broad coalition of stakeholders needs to be involved from the beginning to make sure everyone’s concerns are met.
Lack of political will
Perhaps one of the biggest issues with I-732 was the lack of public support in general. While it did have more than 300,000 signatures to appear on the ballot in the first place, which is a significant accomplishment, 28% of voters were still undecided leading up to the election. And polling after showed that 96% of undecided voters ended up voting no. Public perception of the bill was not nearly as high as it needed to be to get enough votes. This is, of course, on top of the confusing rhetoric of left and right organizations urging voters to vote no.
There was also little buy-in on either side of the aisle from politicians early on in the work of I-732, which was designed to appeal to conservative politicians who would not normally support climate action. That was clearly a harder push than initially thought, with only a few Republican supporters ever joining on, and the majority being retired rather than sitting legislators. In a national push for climate legislation, the bill would initiate with a member of Congress—preferably Republican or a group of Republicans. This would automatically remove the issue of lack of support on the right that I-732 faced.
When it comes to elected officials on the left, the desire for climate legislation is real and urgent. Democratic leaders in the US Congress understand this better than anyone, and have worked tirelessly over the past decade and more to push forward meaningful climate action. Seven of the current climate bills on the floor are carbon taxes or cap and trade bills from Democrats, as well as Independent Bernie Sanders. But as I-732 shows, we cannot ever assume that all Democrats will support any climate bill that comes up to debate. It can be fairly assumed that they will fight to make sure they get their say in what climate legislation looks like. A majority of those on the left want to see a bipartisan bill get through and make real emissions reductions, so working with Democrats is crucial to ensure they remain willing to engage on this when it reaches the national stage.
Engaging the public on a carbon fee and truly encouraging them to understand how it works, and why use of the revenue is so important, will immensely help a bill move forward on the federal level. But in the end, a piece of climate legislation will not be voted on by voters like I-732 was; it will be voted on by elected officials who hear from constituents but will have to make their own decision. This makes continued efforts to educate members of Congress and their staff about the different ways a carbon tax and its revenues can be devised and used more important than ever.
A shared goal
In the end, the division between groups on the left and the other groups who worked to make I-732 fail are important, but perhaps, there is a another lesson to the story of I-732: we are working for the same end goal.
That shared goal should remain at the forefront of conversations and collaborations within the climate movement moving forward, and this should apply to groups on both sides of the aisle. There is an immense climb ahead for groups who care about the future generations’ ability to live on this planet. Respecting and appreciating every environmental group’s efforts, both locally and nationally, should help us come together to push Congress toward a legislative solution that works for everyone. Getting left and right members of Congress to the table to discuss the options of carbon pricing should be the first goal, and it should unite organizations, not divide them.
Despite the divisive rhetoric that dominated the election, combating climate change matters more than ever for all groups and is still possible. Continuing to strengthen alliances on both sides of the aisle in order to achieve true bipartisanship is still the best way forward for a meaningful solution.