Washington state carbon tax backers undaunted despite divide

(Photo Credit: Yes On I-732 Facebook page)

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a report Monday saying that global food insecurity and climate change are inexorably linked. Without urgent action in the small scale agricultural sector that supports sustainable practices and access to both technologies and markets,  the FAO warns that another 40 million people worldwide could be food insecure by 2050.

While the FAO report focuses on so-called “smallholders,” or local farmers and fisherfolk in developing nations already food insecure, strategies to encourage carbon-majors to curb emissions are going before voters in the U.S. The state of Washington could become the first state in the nation to enact a carbon tax on big polluters if grassroots activists can overcome opposition from unlikely allies: the business community, low-income and people of color communities, the state Democratic party and environmental groups. Supporters of the carbon tax, Initiative 732, are pulling out all the stops to win voters before November. FSRN’s Martha Baskin has more from Seattle.

Download Audio

In the fading early evening light, supporters of a citizen ballot initiative that would tax carbon to fight climate change rally. Long summer days have turned to fall leaving only a short window to influence voters before the November election. Ben Silesky, is a 20-something organizer who’s been registering voters as well as winning over hearts and minds on college campuses. He says the biggest challenge isn’t convincing people that climate change is real or swaying polluters opposed to taxing carbon – it’s the pace at which the clock, an ecological clock, is counting down.

“When you talk to a young person about this, they grew up with this issue as a storm cloud over their future,” Silesky explains. “They don’t need to be convinced this is a serious issue, they just need to be convinced that this is a solution that’s up to the scale of the problem, which it is.”

But the solution Silesky and others hope voters approve is not universally supported among those who agree that action to address climate change is imperative: “Carbon taxes are kind of a wonky new frontier of solutions that even people in the environmental community don’t talk about that much.”

Experts say the tax would be the most aggressive tax on coal, oil and natural gas in the nation. It would start at $25 a metric ton of carbon dioxide and eventually grow to more than $100 a ton over forty years. This translates to about fifteen cents more a gallon at the pump, a cost which the ballot measure would offset by a cut of one percent in the state’s sales tax, considered among the highest in the nation.

Environmental economist Yoram Bauman came up with the carbon tax, known as Initiative 732, while teaching at the University of Washington and studying a similar tax in British Columbia.

“Economists like myself we really see putting a price on carbon as sort of the holy grail for tackling climate change,” Bauman says.

In other words use the market to force polluters to think about climate change every time they make an economic decision: “That’s going to have huge power in terms of moving our economy, moving our society in the direction of conservation, innovation, developing new technologies, the things that we need to do in order to fight climate change.”

But the state Democratic Party, major environmental groups, and several climate justice and immigrant rights coalitions actively oppose the initiative. They want economic equity and climate justice front and center. Yet they haven’t put forth an alternative that would be cash-positive and address issues like low-wage jobs, clean energy alternatives, racism and environmental justice.

“We were not included in this policy. There was no racial justice analysis in this policy to account for that harm that is projected,” says Jill Mangaliman, with ‘Got Green’, a grassroots group that works for an equitable and green economy to fight poverty and climate change. The problem with the carbon tax, she says, is if approved it would be a financial wash that lets polluters pass down the cost to consumers who already bear a heavy burden.

Mangaliman says the carbon tax initiative is as unfair as the state’s regressive tax system which relies on sales and real property taxes in lieu of an income tax.

“Who’s going to pay for it?” Mangaliman asks. “It’s going to be those communities disproportionately impacted.”

But proponents of the measure note that on top of a cut in the state sales tax, the carbon tax would also fund the state’s Working Family Tax Rebate for the first time by giving 460,000 low income families in the state up to $1,500 a year in tax relief.

Jason Puracal, who identifies as a person of color with immigrant parents from SE Asia, knows affordable housing, living wage jobs, transportation and racism are huge problems in the state, but he says this tax is a first step. He was on staff with the initiative last year and continues to volunteer.

“We have to be careful saying it’s communities of color, because I’m a person of color and I support I-732, right?” Puracal says.

Puracal co-authored a recent op ed in a local online news magazine, Crosscut, in favor of the tax. “We’re coming close to a deadline of this tipping point right? When is the next viable time we’ll be able to pass legislation to move things forward? Will it be 2018, 2020?” he asks.

Back at the pro-carbon tax rally, signature gatherer Terri Seuss sums up her support: “This is huge. Because if we can do this in washington state, we can do it nationally and then we’ve set the groundwork for doing it internationally.”

The legislature is gridlocked and the governor hasn’t staked out a position, she says. Without strong state action, it will be up to the people to decide on the carbon tax come November. The tax may not be perfect, say supporters, but the ecological clock is ticking, and there’s no time to lose.

You may also like...