Why I am Saying #YesOn732, and not waiting for ‘better’ climate policy
I’ve heard that some of my climate change-concerned friends are hesitant about voting Yes On Washington’s progressive carbon tax initiative I-732. They worry that we should wait for a better climate policy. With all due respect, and recognizing that I-732 is not perfect, I wanted to express my concerns about such a line of reasoning, and give my reasons for why I think we can’t afford to wait any longer.
In sum, I worry that we are treating climate change like a normal political problem, which we can try again on, but physics is unforgiving of delays, the world won’t slow it’s warming to meet our need for gradual political progress, and the results if we don’t act soon will likely be devastating.
Climate policy is never going to be perfect. There is always going to be trade-offs as we move forward, and so any policy will necessarily be a compromise. Recognizing this, the fossil fuel industry tactic has typically been to claim to support carbon pricing, but always to object to proposed policies saying they are not good enough — as they are now doing by pouring in hundreds of thousands to the No on 732 camp. 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, while the history of Washington climate politics is complex, what is the current alternative to I-732 in Washington? 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 rapidly running out, and the climate is almost spiraling out of control. We need to act.
While it’s difficult to know what the other policy would be, as there is no policy yet, from what I can tell from it’s sketch, the alternative proposal would do certain good things through the investments it would make in clean energy, transportation, and communities, particularly communities of color. But those good things come at a cost. The earlier version of their proposal which failed in the legislature was regressive in terms of its impacts on taxes. Regressive taxes fall disproportionately on low income people and communities of color, and Washington already has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country. By not having the sales tax reduction and a smaller Working Families Tax Rebate, their policy vision passes more of the costs of a regressive carbon tax onto Washingtonians, unlike 732 which doesn’t make the same investments, but offsets much of those costs of a carbon tax by making a (rather large) progressive shift to the tax system. Both approaches involve a trade-off. I supported the previous proposal, knowing it was not perfect, just as I am supporting 732, knowing it is not perfect, and just as I will support other climate policy that is not perfect if 732 doesn’t pass. Perfect, after all, is the wrong standard for our deeply imperfect world.
“The Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki said of climate change that ‘[w]e’re a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.’ It is time to recognize that we are getting rather close to that brick wall.” — Shi-Ling Hsu
The climate crisis is desperately urgent, and the United States is dismally behind on reducing its over-sized contribution to the problem. If we don’t act fast, the people particularly in least developed countries, those least responsible for the problem, will be affected the most. Children and future generations will be affected the most. We people here in Washington, in one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation on earth won’t be the ones most affected, although I know there are disproportionate impacts felt here too. I think we have a moral responsibility grounded in global and inter-generational justice to act now, and not allow the perfect to be the enemy of good climate policy, otherwise we may never get done what is needed to turn the tides of this great global crisis.
In the end, whatever the outcome after these elections, I hope we can work together to make more progress in tackling the range of pressing problems we face. I know these elections have not always been easy for those in the climate community, but if we lift our eyes from it, hopefully we can see the places where we agree, that we are all fighting for good, and that now, perhaps more than ever, we need to come together to create a more just and caring world.
About the author: Alex Lenferna is a Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar pursuing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Washington focusing on climate ethics and justice. He is a first generation South African whose family hails from the small island nation of Mauritius. He is a fellow with Carbon Washington, and a leader of Divest University of Washington. Views expressed are his own.