Matt Driscoll

Famed weatherman wades into I-732 debate on race and social justice

Only in Washington.

That’s one of the first reactions one might reasonably have to the ongoing debate over Initiative 732, the carbon tax swap that will make its way to voters this November.

I’ve written about it before, and the way it’s tearing apart lefty voters who typically unite behind progressive environmental causes. The debate continues to fascinate.

Like British Columbia’s carbon tax, I-732 is designed to reduce carbon emissions by increasingly taxing major polluters. In an attempt to win over more conservative voters, Carbon Washington intended the measure to be revenue neutral — balancing the ledger (at least in theory) with reductions in the state sales tax and business and occupation tax.

So why the discord on the left?

To some — including organizations such as the Washington State Labor Council and many other racial and economic justice groups — I-732 doesn’t go far enough.

Among other concerns, critics argue that I-732 doesn’t address the disproportionate impact climate change has on communities of color and low-income people. They remain perturbed that the money raised through the proposed tax will be squandered instead of going back to those who need it most, and say that the folks championing I-732 didn’t involve, or adequately consider, historically underrepresented populations in the crafting of the initiative.

It’s into this sticky argument of demographics, poverty and economics that well-known weather prognosticator and outspoken University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences Cliff Mass recently weighed in.

Wait. Say what?

I go to a lot of regional climate policy gatherings, and this claim has been accepted wisdom by many environmental activists, with nodding approval when stated. And this assumption is driving all kinds of actions, like inspiring some activists to oppose the carbon-tax initiative (I-732) because it doesn’t provide enough support for low-incoming and minority folks.

Cliff Mass

Yes, just when you thought the debate on the left over I-732 couldn’t get more peculiar and convoluted, Mass took to his popular blog in an effort to debunk the notion that low-income and minority populations will bear the brunt of global warming in the Pacific Northwest.

“I go to a lot of regional climate policy gatherings, and this claim has been accepted wisdom by many environmental activists, with nodding approval when stated,” Mass wrote. “And this assumption is driving all kinds of actions, like inspiring some activists to oppose the carbon-tax initiative (I-732) because it doesn't provide enough support for low-incoming and minority folks.”

To those who follow Mass, it comes as no surprise that the famed weatherman would take on matters unrelated to cold fronts and convergence zones. Over the years, Mass has regularly raised discussions (and occasionally ire) in tackling subjects that many have contended are beyond his field of expertise — be it the Seattle School District’s math curriculum or the impact climate change has on Washington wildfires.

In his blog, Mass — who hasn’t been shy about his support for I-732, arguing that a bipartisan approach is the only legitimate chance we have of achieving climate change legislation — argues that … climate change and warmer temperatures will likely benefit low-income and minority populations.

Talk about a hot take.

Mass makes his case by highlighting a reduction in black ice, which he describes as “the No. 1 weather phenomenon that kills and injures Washington state residents and particularly poorer ones,” and a decreased reliance on wood-burning stoves, which he says will improve air quality for everyone — but especially in poorer, rural communities.

He also argues that warmer winters will help prevent the homeless from suffering from hypothermia and death, that flooding and landslides will mainly impact the rich, and that improved growing seasons in Washington will lead to more agricultural jobs.

All of this, it should be clear, flies directly in the face of many of the main talking points from the far left and the argument that poor and minority populations have the most to lose at the hands of climate change.

“The real reason why I’m doing it is I’m hoping that some of the folks in the environmental movements who are opposing (I-732) will rethink it,” Mass told me by phone Friday. “I think it’s an extremely interesting and revealing debate. It reveals that there are political elements to this that go beyond the environment.”

“The problem we have now is we’re going out from the realm of science and rational discussion to religion,” he continued. “To some people, this is like religion. … Facts matter. Real information matters.”

I think it’s an extremely interesting and revealing debate. It reveals that there are political elements to this that go beyond the environment.

Cliff Mass

To some, Mass’ advocacy for a position he describes as rooted in science is seen more as the rantings of a man out of his depth. And a July 20 report from Front and Centered — described as “a statewide coalition of organizations and groups rooted in communities of color and people with lower incomes” — highlights their reasoning.

The report argues that communities of color and low-income populations face more of a threat from things like drought, increased temperatures and air quality issues. They have less ability to adapt to climate change, and “the legacy and persistence of discriminatory housing, education and employment create conditions where communities of color live and work in neighborhoods and jobs that are least protected from extreme climate-related events.”

In making these claims, Front and Centered draws on legitimate research, such as the 2016 National Equity Atlas, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department 2015 Health Equity Assessment, and the 2013 Washington State Department of Health’s report on Mortality and Life Expectancy.

In other words, they’re not exactly pulling this stuff from thin air. They are, on the other hand, using it to further a narrative that climate change is just as much a racial social justice issue as it is an environmental one.

So where does this leave us?

Likely, right back where we started, at least when it comes to the real merits of I-732.

The real quandary remains the same: How much can — and should — one initiative do?

What’s crystal clear: Without the full support of the left, I-732 is likely doomed.

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