The political path to imposing a tax on carbon-fuel emissions is very rocky in the U.S. Even in a politically green state like Washington, there is no carbon tax to strongly curb the emissions from fossil fuels that climate scientists link directly to global warming.
Resistance from business groups and Republicans — along with divisions among environmental and labor interests — have stymied progress in the state Legislature and on the statewide ballot.
So it is with some concern that Washington tribes are talking about a rival measure in 2018 that could go alongside any carbon measure that environmentalists groups are already working on.
Thus far, the Quinault Indian Nation is the main force behind talk of a second ballot measure addressing climate in addition to one getting drafted by the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy.
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Having two measures on a ballot does not automatically doom both. But fear that two ballot measures might kill both was one reason environmental groups withdrew their plans for a cap-and-trade carbon-pricing initiative in 2016. That came after Carbon Washington leader Yoram Bauman pushed ahead with a straight tax on carbon fuels using Initiative 732.
Voters ultimately rejected I-732. Several labor and environmental groups opposed it; so did business groups, Republican lawmakers and climate-action leaders like Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
Despite his skepticism, Inslee came back in 2017 with is own proposal for a carbon tax, as did House Democrats. These again went nowhere in the divided Legislature.
To date, only California has a cap-and-trade program for buying and selling carbon credits, and Northeast states have a carbon compact for power plants. But more action by forward-thinking states is needed. This is all the more true as the Trump administration keeps its head aggressively in the sand on human contributions to climate change.
We understand tribes’ frustration that — once again — an important policy affecting their interests is being drawn up that doesn’t fully represent their concerns as sovereign entities. Quinault leaders say it also does not go far enough.
But there is a case to make that all parties working on a climate initiative should work together on a single proposal for 2018. Differences between climate-action groups helped sink I-732.
Divisions over fossil fuels and ballot strategies have not always been fatal. In 1987 lawmakers and environmentalists split over taxing toxic substances such as oil products and pesticides for environmental cleanups. After advocates sent Initiative 97 to the Legislature, lawmakers were under pressure from industry and they put a less binding alternative on the ballot alongside I-97. Voters chose the toughest measure.
Our state may not be at the tipping point such that public support for carbon pricing is as unstoppable as taxing oil for cleanups was. But whatever goes onto the 2018 ballot should include an approach tough enough to make a difference.
That means any proposal could start gently and ratchet up in force over time. The important thing is putting a price on carbon that actually discourages emissions and spurs cleaner alternatives.