Washington state is the home of the latest environmental battle in the U.S.A, with the controversial Initiative 1631 due to be voted on in the November 6th elections. The initiative has received both positive and negative attention, given its particular stipulations and its relation to the UN-backed call to lower emissions by 2030. Initiative 1631 is different from past initiatives in that it is a carbon fee, not a carbon tax. This means that the money collected from emitters will go toward environmental conservation projects, not other state agendas. Initiative 1631 charges a $15 fee per ton of carbon dioxide produced, with an additional $2/ton to be added every year until 2035. While Initiative 1631 is only a statewide bill, it could encourage the introduction of similar initiatives across the country. Several groups involved in the oil industry are in opposition.
Robert Stavins, head of the environmental economics program at Harvard University responds, “If the main effect of the Washington state carbon tax is that refining capacity is moved outside of the state, then the impact on firms will not be that significant […] But this is the kind of potential leakage in economic activity…that could arise if [similar] state-level climate policies [are enacted elsewhere]. He goes on to say, “In my judgment, it is very likely that there will be a national carbon-pricing regime before 2030. […] Indeed, depending on the political makeup of the Congress and the White House, it could happen shortly after 2020.” Analysts also state that the initiative will likely not impact oil companies immediately, but that the initiative could well set an impactful precedent.
The Western States Petroleum Association has already raised millions to oppose the bill; opposition also includes large oil refining companies like BP, Chevron and Philips 66. One spokesperson for No on Initiative 1631 explains that local business owners (who, for example, cannot afford to move or forge a deal for exemption) would be most affected by the bill. Local news sources state that the bill is not “do or die;” Washington is already one of the lowest emitting states in the country.
But local business owner Holly Olsen notes the significant effect of Washington’s emissions, despite their low levels compared to other states. “I’ve lived in Seattle my whole life. This is not something I remember growing up with. […] Clearly there has been some kind of change that happened.” She states that those making plans for 2019 ask: “Should this be a regular thing to expect in summer?” Former mayor Michael Bloomberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates (a Seattle native) each gave $1 million to Initiative 1631’s supporting coalition. Gates maintains that the resulting money will allow Washington to build a leading clean-energy infrastructure, as well as produce “tens of thousands of jobs in Washington.” A local news source reports that this bill could generate $1 billion annually by 2023 for Washington, which could go toward “helping people buy electric cars and thinning fire-prone forests.” The same source reports that British Columbia (just north of Washington) has instated a similar carbon fee, and has seen plenty of success.
Initiative 1631 was filed months before this year’s UN Climate Report, which has called for “rapid and unprecedented” changes in energy use (specifically, a 45% cut in emissions) to avoid a rise in global temperatures above 1.5 degrees Celsius as early as 2030. Even half a degree of planetary warming will adversely affect millions of people. At ranges of 0.5-1.0-degree warming, the world will see threatened ecosystems, extreme weather events, coastal and river flooding, crop yield loss, heat-related mortalities, coral die-off, and many other adverse effects. Coral reefs are integral to marine life and their demise could cost billions of dollars within the fishing industry. Reefs also provide coastal protection against potentially damaging storms.
Australia and the United States have avoided positive response to the report, reflecting the political challenges faced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there was no money for “global climate conferences and all that nonsense.” President Donald Trump expressed his suspicion toward the report, saying, “It was given to me. And I want to look at who drew it. You know, which group drew it. I can give you reports that are fabulous and I can give you reports that aren’t so good.” Friends of the Earth member Rachel Kennerly states, “Any administration, and it would appear especially the US and Australia, that pushes damaging domestic policies and picks apart science consensus is a dangerous outlier by ignoring the deadly impacts now due to climate chaos.”
Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said that the UN’s message “must be carried into the halls of power and the negotiation rooms at COP24. This should be a moral imperative for all leaders around the world.” A similar sentiment came from Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, who stated, “There is a clear moral imperative for developed economies like the U.K. to help those around the world who stand to lose most from the consequences of manmade climate change.” The U.K. has cut annual emissions by 40% since 1990.
Some groups reason that a statewide initiative does more local harm than it does overall good. But this legislation is a start in an environmentally conscious direction, in high-emissions country where doing nothing at all could mean harming millions of people due to rampant environmental disaster. With proof that this kind of fee works in other locations and contexts, Washington state should vote for the long-term benefits – clean infrastructure, low pollution and impactful, environmentally conscious leadership.
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