Give voters one plan for carbon tax

From the Editorial Board

In the 2016 election, voters in Washington state rejected Initiative 732, a measure that would have taxed carbon emissions from fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline.
In the 2016 election, voters in Washington state rejected Initiative 732, a measure that would have taxed carbon emissions from fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline. AP

In 2016, two competing grassroots organizations proposed separate statewide carbon-tax initiatives. There was no time to waste, both groups argued, noting that climate change was taking its toll on the Pacific Northwest.

Only one proposal made it to the ballot, and it met with an underwhelming response. Carbon Washington’s Initiative 732 went down with a nearly 60 percent “no” vote last November. Several environmental groups (and Gov. Jay Inslee) didn’t support it, saying it fell short in promoting renewable energy and environmental justice.

Others, including this Editorial Board, opposed I-732 out of concern the math didn’t quite add up and it wouldn’t be revenue neutral.

Divide-and-be-conquered should have been the takeaway from the 2016 election. And yet competing carbon-tax initiatives have once again begun to brew for the 2018 ballot.

It would be unfortunate if Washington voters are again denied a chance to act on a smartly crafted carbon tax backed by a unified environmental movement.

There was a time not so long ago when global-warming activists had a hard time convincing the public they weren’t anything but doomsday extremists, no matter how many scientific studies, satellite pictures and Oscar-winning documentaries they rolled out.

Then along came Harvey, Irma and now Maria -- devastating hurricanes all -- on top of another record-breaking West Coast wildfire season, and suddenly the theory that pollution could cause catastrophic weather doesn’t seem so remote after all.

Recognizing the urgency, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy is back at the drawing board for another crack at a Washington state carbon tax. The coalition was one of the louder voices opposing I-732.

Details of the Alliance’s proposed 2018 ballot measure are still being worked out, according to Aiko Schaefer, who co-chairs the steering committee. But that hasn’t stopped the Quinault Indian Nation from expressing early opposition on behalf of Washington tribes.

In a Sept. 8 letter to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Quinault leaders made clear the tribes may go ahead with their own proposal to tax carbon emissions.

Their justification for wanting a leading role is sound: “As the legal co-managers of Washington’s natural resources and the leaders of sovereign governments with jurisdiction across more than 5,000 square miles of the State, Washington’s Tribes will be critical to addressing the threat of climate change. “

The letter outlines tribal concerns and goals: Along with wanting a higher price put on pollution, calling on the carbon tax to begin at $25 per metric ton and to increase commensurate with inflation, they’d like to see 10 percent of carbon tax revenue set aside for conservation projects on tribal land.

Schaefer concedes that Alliance members haven’t done enough to engage and collaborate with tribal leaders early on. It’s an oversight they’re eager to correct.

Neither the Alliance nor tribal leaders have finalized any carbon-tax proposal, but we see signs of same song, second verse, as well-meaning activists get tangled in conflicting philosophies and priorities.

Passing carbon-pricing legislation is already an uphill climb. Just ask Inslee, who failed to win a cap-and-trade plan in 2015. The carbon tax he championed as the centerpiece of his 2017 budget was unpopular all around; it was rejected by both the Democrats who hold the majority in the House and the Republicans who control the Senate.

A ballot initiative may be the only path to success, but not if it’s burdened with a fractured environmental message. Voters ultimately may not want a carbon tax, but at least give them one coherent plan to consider.

Heed the lessons of 2016: Dueling grass-root ballot measures only succeed in shooting one another down.

2018 may be the year Washington voters are ready to take a carbon-tax initiative seriously — to form a consensus that they must do something, and to strike while the earth is hot.

But not if multiple factions again muddle the message.