Gov. Inslee’s ‘polluter pays’ proposal a step toward climate justice

Tukwila City Council Member De'Sean Quinn talked about how his city is a "hotspot" where people of color are impacted by climate change and other factors affecting health and economic status of minorities. (Photo via Gov. Jay Inslee's Flickr)
Tukwila City Council Member De’Sean Quinn talked about how his city is a “hotspot” for people of color impacted by climate change and other factors affecting health and economic status of minorities. (Photo via Gov. Jay Inslee’s Flickr)

Days after the governments of the world convened in Lima to set the stage for the next big United Nations climate change conference, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a plan that would bring our state in line with 39 other programs around the world and put a price on carbon.

The costs of climate change are disproportionate, both globally between nations, and locally between communities, determined by where we live, race and ethnicity, income and the policies we pass. In addressing this challenge, the proposal is a grand opportunity not just to reduce pollution, but to flip the script on environmental injustice.

A group of communities of color have been organizing for justice as principal theme of climate action in Washington. They recently took the governor on a tour of the South Park neighborhood to see firsthand the impacts of air pollution.

Their “Principles for Climate Justice” emphasize racial equity, net environmental and economic benefits for communities of color and those with lower incomes. They also endorse accountability through analysis and participatory oversight. The groups signing on are diverse: the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, Community to Community, El Centro de La Raza, Got Green, Latino Community Fund, OneAmerica, Puget Sound Sage, Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN!) and more.

Together, they are formidable allies for just climate policy. They’ll be sharing with state legislators this session the impact of climate change on their communities and the need to act.

The polluter payment, community benefits, and carbon pricing proposed for Washington emphasizes fairness, and it’s a great start.

Paulina Lopez shows Gov. Inslee the South Park community center basketball courts, where tens of thousands of trucks drive by. (Photo via Gov. Jay Inslee's Flickr)
Paulina Lopez shows Gov. Inslee the South Park community center basketball courts, where tens of thousands of trucks drive by. (Photo via Gov. Jay Inslee’s Flickr)

Big polluters don’t get off the hook in the “Carbon Pollution Accountability Act” which requires around 130 entities covering 85 percent of Washington state emissions to purchase a permit at a state auction, exempting just agriculture, waste and bio energy sources. No permits will be given away as a windfall for polluters as was the case in Europe and California.

The number of permits sold will decline by about 2 percent a year, slowly reducing pollution allowed toward meeting the state’s climate obligations set in law in 2008.

The governor also included concepts to assure policy choices and implementation approaches include the participation of communities most affected by climate change and are informed by and responsive to racial, environmental and economic analysis. They include an Environmental Justice “Hotspot” Study and an Economic Justice and an Environmental Equity advisory committee, made up of low-income people, communities of color, frontline workers and others most directly affected by the policy. These tools were proposed by communities of color and should be implemented immediately.

Selling permits to pollute — well overdue — creates revenue. Nearly $1 billion of it is anticipated in the first full year, with the expectation that it will climb over time. The Governor heard from the community about the need for net economic benefits — especially given our state’s regressive tax system — and suggested $108 million of revenue should be allocated to the Working Families Tax Rebate.

This program — approved in 2008, but never funded — provides a partial state match to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. The package also includes small funds for housing and transit, and encourages better, multi-modal transportation planning and clean vehicles.

However, given the huge need for much more revenue and progressive policy, prioritizing specifically communities most impacted by climate change is essential. The majority of revenue is allocated towards education and transportation: two major gaps in the Washington state budget and two areas that have great potential for equitable investments if done right.

This proposal in itself cannot change the game. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start — and well overdue. Together with Pacific Coast states already taking action like California, British Columbia, and Oregon (likely coming soon), we can make a global impact.

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