The imperatives of the climate crisis and the logic of economic austerity are at war—and Washington State is on the front lines.
So-called “revenue-neutral” carbon pricing—whereby the proceeds are used to fund tax cuts—has long been a cherished hobbyhorse of free-market economists and the odd Republican who favors climate action. It’s also the policy of choice for big polluters like ExxonMobil. And now this right-wing friendly model is being pushed in Washington State, thanks to Initiative 732.
I-732, on the ballot on November 8, would be the first revenue-neutral price on carbon in the United States. It is widely unpopular among the state’s Democrats, Republicans, and even the business lobby, and has only managed to win the support of one significant environmental group. But on the off chance it is approved by voters, it would be a disastrous precedent that could set back the climate justice movement for a decade—time that we simply can’t afford to lose.
Some have accepted the logic that something is better than nothing, even arguing that a “tax swap” could substitute for a just transition to a low-carbon economy. The evidence proves otherwise. In British Columbia, two-thirds of the tax cuts have ended up in corporate pockets, while carbon emissions have been rising in recent years and the fracking industry has boomed.
By some estimates, I-732 would raise gasoline and electricity prices less than 15 percent by 2040 in Washington State—hardly enough to jumpstart an urgent, sweeping phase-out of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, it would offset carbon revenues by cutting taxes for big corporations, including major polluters. (According to the Seattle Times, Boeing could see windfalls of tens of millions annually.)
And while polluters get rewarded, the communities of color that have born the brunt of fossil fuel pollution, and the working people whose jobs are at risk as we move away from fossil fuels, are left empty handed. The money raised by the tax won’t be used to fund green jobs in low-income communities, or to retrain workers currently in high carbon sectors. In other words, this is the epitome of an unjust transition.
In fact, this “neutral” tax might not even break even, with a state government analysis concluding it would blow a $797.2 million hole in Washington’s budget over six fiscal years—this at a time when the legislature is under court orders to fix its failure to adequately fund education. So rather than the equitable green transition that has long been promised (better and more affordable public transit, community controlled renewable energy…), low income communities could well end up with even more eroded services than they have now.
The backers of I-732 are running on a pessimistic platform of “just do something,” preying on the real urgency that so many of us feel in the face of the climate crisis. But sometimes “something” is worse than nothing, especially if it will stand in the way of better proposals down the road.
A paltry, revenue-neutral carbon tax simply cannot deliver the massive green energy investments and community-driven solutions we all need. Science-based climate action means an unprecedented, rapid, and decisive shift to renewables; a truly equitable carbon tax can play an important role in spurring the transition, but it won’t work unless we make the polluters pay, and put their immoral profits to work repairing the damage they have knowingly created. The way to do that is to mobilize the broadest possible coalition—led by the frontline communities who stand to benefit most from building a cleaner and fairer economy.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” I-732 proponents like to say. It sounds good, but it is not what opponents of this initiative are doing. “Perfect” is not on the table—we lost that option when climate action was delayed for decades. So much time has been lost, in fact, that now we have just one shot to get the policy right. And that means we can’t let the politically difficult be the enemy of the scientifically and socially necessary.