The moral urgency of climate action: Why I’m saying #YesOn732

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As the reality of climate change deepens, the urgency of taking action becomes more and more pressing. Fortunately, here in Washington, we have an opportunity to bend the arc towards climate stability when Initiative 732 appears on the ballot this November.

I-732 is simple. It puts a fee on something we don’t want: greenhouse gas pollution. It then returns the revenue to Washingtonians by reducing taxes on families and businesses. It’s a simple tax swap, and the results could be remarkable.

By using approximately 80% of its intended revenue to reduce the sales tax and fund the Working Families Tax Rebate (WFTR), I-732 would be a win especially for low-income families — a change which is desperately needed given that we have the most regressive tax system in the nation. In fact, I-732 would be the most progressive change to Washington’s tax system since the sales tax was removed from groceries in the 1970s.

A study by Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI) of a policy like I-732 shows it could reduce state greenhouse gas emissions to 75% of 1990 levels by the time the price reaches $100/metric ton (around 2058 for I-732) – meeting the state’s emission reduction goals. Thanks to the rapid development of clean energy technologies, these models significantly underestimate the benefits that could be attained by carbon pricing, so I-732 would do even better!

The REMI study also found that, five years after adopting I-732, Washington would see a net increase of over 10,000 jobs, and grow its GDP by an additional $500 million — all the while having “minimal net impacts on the cost of living.” On the other hand, the cost of not doing anything to curb climate change and pollution will cost Washington an estimated $4 billion or more — every year — by 2020.

Despite I-732’s significant benefits, many people are uncomfortable with the idea of a carbon tax. In fact, just last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Republican-backed resolution “condemning” a carbon tax.

With all due respect to I-732’s detractors, I want to respond and give my reasoning for why I am saying #YesOn732:

“Won’t I-732 Reduce State Revenue?”

A fiscal analysis, based on a number of inaccurate assumptions, suggested that I-732 would reduce state revenues. If the analysis is corrected, then I-732 will be approximately revenue-neutral. Even if the analysis was right, it would only be a reduction of $133 million in revenue per year, which is equivalent to 0.66% of Washington’s general fund revenue of $20 billion per year. That revenue, however, is not lost. It will go toward fixing our regressive tax system and helping manufacturers stay competitive, even with a carbon tax in place.

“Shouldn’t We Wait for a Better Policy?”

Some argue that we should wait until we get a better policy. Their refrain sounds eerily like that of the fossil fuel industry, which has long claimed to support carbon pricing, yet always objects to proposed policies. While the motives behind some objections to I-732 are certainly nobler than Big Oil’s, I worry that the effects will be the same – delayed action, resulting in graver climate harms.

After all, what is the alternative to I-732? While other groups have put forward the beginnings of a policy, it is not clear when they will be able to put it in place. The legislature is gridlocked on carbon pricing — as previous attempts have demonstrated. 2018 is a non-presidential election, so the conservative voting dynamics weigh heavily against a carbon pricing initiative passing on the ballot — never mind one which would entail a significant increase in taxes, which others would like to see as a feature of carbon pricing. So it seems we would have to wait until the 2020 presidential election and hope the election dynamics are favorable. But we don’t have the luxury of time. Our carbon budget is running out, and the climate is almost spiraling out of control. We need to act now.

“What about a just transition?”

Our regressive tax system and the damaging impacts of climate change and pollution disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities due to our troubling history of racial, environmental, and economic injustice. Reducing the deeply regressive sales tax helps all Washingtonians, including undocumented workers who often get overlooked by state programs. Combined with the Working Families Tax Rebate, I-732 does a lot to fix our tax system and help those most impacted by it. Additionally, I-732 would be one of Washington’s most effective policies to reduce air pollution and the impacts of climate change, both of which fall disproportionately on these communities.

It is true that I-732 does not include community-directed investments for front-line fossil fuel industry workers and communities of color. If I could have my way, I would include funding along those lines (as Bernie Sanders’ carbon tax proposal would do). Fortunately, the legislature can amend I-732 once it is passed into law, and follow California’s example which put in place just transition funding after the implementation of their carbon pricing policy. This may in fact be the best route to make this happen, as it may be easier to advocate for that funding once I-732 is in place than it would be to advocate for a whole new policy in four years’ time.

It’s Time to Act

We have a very small window left to take action on climate change, avoid devastating impacts, and pivot towards a prosperous clean energy future. As UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has warned, the actions and investments we make over the next five years “will determine the quality of life of future generations.”

This November the ability to act decisively on climate change is finally in the hands of Washingtonians. I am hopeful that Washingtonians will cast their votes in favor of I-732 and help make Washington the moral leader we need in this urgent fight against climate change.

The views expressed here are of the writer and not necessarily of The Seattle Globalist.

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