(Credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Support for slapping a tax on carbon emissions is about as widespread as an environmental measure can get. Environmentalists and progressive Democrats who have long championed a carbon tax have recently been joined by big oil companies and establishment Republicans. It’s the one cause that unites Bernie Sanders and Exxon Mobil.
So why do reliably blue states keep failing to put one in place?
Another carbon tax bill died in Washington state’s legislature earlier this month, the state’s third serious attempt in the past two years. A few days later, lawmakers in Oregon set aside a plan for a cap-and-trade program, scuttling the measure for at least another year. Similar efforts in New England have also gone nowhere. And the pile of failed carbon-tax proposals keeps growing.
But that pile also represents a big experiment. Think of them as trials and errors — many errors — as lawmakers and environmental groups slowly garner public support to make carbon taxes law.
“It’s a cauldron. It’s a mess,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, a group supporting a new carbon pricing ballot initiative. “To brew up something that most people are going to be satisfied with is really hard to do.”
Carbon taxes are often seen as a common ground climate solution, with supporters ranging across the political spectrum. But that unity disguises an important issue: The nuts and bolts of a carbon tax are divisive enough to make environmentalists go to war with themselves.
That was the story with Initiative 732, a Washington state carbon-tax measure that generated national attention before it went down in flames in 2016. The group behind it, Carbon Washington, tried to appeal to bipartisan support, planning to use money raised from the tax to lower the state’s sales and business taxes. It had endorsements from some Republicans, climate scientists, and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio.
But in a twist, some progressive and environmental groups — including the state Democratic party — turned against the initiative, arguing it would waste tax dollars. Low-income residents spend more of their paychecks on gas or home heating, and opponents worried the carbon tax might hit them too hard.
The measure soon lost support from progressives who didn’t think it went far enough. On election day in 2016, about 41 percent of voters supported it.
“The environmental community was split down the middle, and the scars are still there,” Johnson said.
That loss sent a message to climate wonks around the state: A simple carbon tax isn’t good enough. Only a kickass carbon tax will do. Since then, lawmakers and climate activists have been playing a long game of trial-and-error, trying to craft a carbon tax that gets enough support from progressives to become law.
Last year, Governor Jay Inslee asked Washington state’s lawmakers to pass a carbon tax to help fund education. Lawmakers introduced a handful bills that soon fizzled out in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In January, after …read more