Climate Change Policy: Our Collective Shame

by John Stafford

INTRODUCTION

It is inappropriate to use specific weather events as evidence for or against climate change, as the warming climate does not eliminate hot or cold weather cycles; rather, it changes their relative prevalence over time.  Nonetheless, one cannot escape the irony that just after the completion of the 2015 State Legislative Session – in which climate change legislation was treated with derision (Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal was not even espoused by the Democratic-controlled House; a “poison pill” was inserted by the Republican caucus into the transportation budget that requires moving funds from transit to roads if Inslee attempts to raise fuel standards; etc.) – more than 3,000 wildfires burned over one million acres of land in Washington and Oregon, and up to 400,000 salmon died in overly hot rivers engendered by snowpack drought.  Moving from anecdotal to substantive evidence for climate change:  14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, and the daily average atmospheric level of carbon dioxide crossed the 400 parts per million threshold in May.  The mind-boggling disconnect between scientific reality and public policy response continues.

This article will examine two aspects of climate change policy development.  First, several observations are made about the appalling nature of public dialog on global warming.  Second, several proposals to address climate change in Washington State are discussed.

THE APPALLING NATURE  OF OUR PUBLIC DIALOGUE

As is commonly known, the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that:  climate change is real; human activity is a significant cause of this process; the eventual impacts — if it is not abated – will be severe; and therefore, an immediate and momentous policy response is critical.  The Powell literature review of 2013 found that of the 13,950 articles published in peer reviewed journals between 1991 and 2012, only 24 (0.2 percent) argued against anthropogenic global warming.1 -In 2010, Anderegg et al., based on a survey of scientists, concluded:  “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”2- I posit that on almost any scientific issue where the economic stakes of different policy responses are immense, there will be some small percentage of scientists that adopt a contrarian view (no matter how clear the science), often for financial and/or reputational remuneration.  In short, it may be that we have approached the end-game on climate change consensus.

Nevertheless, Washington State lawmakers (and others) continue to make absurd assertions on the subject.  For example, Senator Andy Hill (R-Redmond) stated in his 2014 Seattle Times candidate interview that climate change science is not clear, because, “…it depends on which data set you use” (to the Times’ credit, they later ridiculed Hill for this comment).  And in 2015, Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) changed the original language in Senate Bill 5735 (written by Senator Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland) from, “human activity significantly contributes to climate change,” to the innocuous, “human activity may contribute to climate change.”  

The science of climate change is, of course, spectacularly complex (involving primary, secondary and tertiary effects; feedback loops and tipping points; myriad discrete phenomena that must be individually analyzed and quantified; integrated modelling that incorporates these distinct dimensions, which involves thousands of algorithms; advanced simulation and statistical techniques; etc.).  Neither Senator Hill nor Senator Erickson is within light-years of being qualified to challenge this science.  And yet they do.

In addition to the obvious economic and electoral forces that incent politicians to make these types of statements, there is a troubling societal ethos that tolerates, accommodates and even encourages them.  Our era increasingly espouses a cavalier disregard for expertise, replacing it (if such a thing were possible) with intellectually lazy, individually derived, unsubstantiated opinion, and attempting to bestow credibility upon it.  

Columnist Leonard Pitts, commenting on this trend, observes that in modern society, an individual who “…watches several episodes of Grey’s Anatomy ends up believing that he/she is an expert in neurosurgery.”  This mindset can be contrasted with the very different ethos of yesteryear, as exemplified by University of Washington professor Giovanni Costigan (1905–1990).  In 1971, Costigan debated William F. Buckley, Jr. (successfully, by all accounts) for two and a half hours at Hec Edmundson Pavillion on the merits of the Vietnam War.  When later praised for his performance, Costigan replied:  “Please don’t get me wrong.  I am not an expert on the Vietnam War.  I’ve only read 500 books on the subject.”

This devolution toward intellectual laziness, seen as amusing by some, is alarming.  A “dumbed- down” society is a dangerous society.  And we have all-too-much evidence to support this assertion:  the Iraq War and its aftermath, launched under the pretext of three false rationales (which George Will – nobody’s liberal — refers to as, “…perhaps the worst foreign policy debacle in the nation’s history”3); the obscene and never-ending challenge to our current president’s birthplace – even in the presence of a birth certificate; the continued consideration and election of lightweight candidates for high public office (e.g., Bush II, Palin, Trump); the failure to discuss the topic of climate change in the first Republican presidential debate; etc.

It is important to note that irresponsibility in this field is not restricted to the Republican Party.  As noted above, the Democratic-controlled House did not pass Inslee’s 2015 cap-and-trade bill.  There have, however, been some bright spots.  Governor Inslee deserves plaudits for introducing major global warming legislation, and is now working through the Department of Ecology to effect greenhouse gas emission reductions.  In addition, several legislators have adopted an assertive leadership role on climate change policy.  For example, Representative Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Des Moines, chair of the House Environment Committee) sponsored Inslee’s cap-and-trade bill in the House, and spoke out against the aforementioned “poison pill” provision in the transportation budget (which he voted against), saying:  “I’m not going to trade progress on climate change for any transportation project.” Finally, eight teens and pre-teens successfully challenged the Washington State Department of Ecology — in court4 — to limit carbon emissions to the level necessary to protect our oceans and climate systems, based on the best available science.  This challenge poignantly illustrates two central facets of the climate change policy problem:  the (supposedly sacred) intergenerational pact for public policy development is being violated (i.e., we live in the luxury of carbon emissions freedom, while future generations will pay the price for our irresponsibility); and the fact that such a basic challenge – to use science as the basis for limiting carbon emissions to protect the climate (roughly akin to asking the Department of Transportation to keep the speed limit under 200 miles per hour in residential areas)  – has to be brought by ten year olds to prod fifty year olds who resist such obviously indicated action.

MAJOR WASHINGTON OPPORTUNITIES

Amidst this concerning backdrop, an encouraging trend is emerging – the development of substantive proposals to reduce carbon emissions in Washington State.  In addition to the Inslee cap-and-trade proposal (which did not pass), there is Carbon Washington’s  Initiative 732, which may make it to the ballot in 20165, and the possibility of another plan (not yet released) from The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy (AJCE).

To compare them, it is useful to establish a simple framework.  All plans place a price (or tax) on carbon products and/or emissions to disincentivize carbon pollution.  However, the manner in which plans are designed differs.  There are two primary dimensions along which carbon pricing schemes vary.  The first is the way carbon is priced (direct tax versus cap-and-trade).  In a direct tax system, a tax is added to products that emit carbon (e.g., a 25 cent per gallon tax on gasoline), creating an incentive for consumers to reduce usage.  In a cap-and-trade system, large scale entities (e.g., refineries) pay the government up front for allowances to emit carbon.  A ceiling (“cap”) is placed on total allowable emissions, and this ceiling is reduced over time.  As entities reduce their emissions, they can sell (“trade”) their allowances to other entities.

The second dimension is whether net tax revenue is generated for the state (revenue neutral versus tax generating).  If the plan is revenue-neutral, all of the proceeds that the government receives from its carbon taxes or allowances are returned to citizens via corresponding reductions in other taxes.  Thus, while your gas tax increases, your sales tax decreases, so that the state does not generate additional net revenue.  In a revenue-generating system, some of the additional carbon tax revenue is used for public spending.  This type of system creates an overall net increase in taxation.

These two dimensions can be combined to form a matrix (see chart below) of four possibilities:  a revenue-neutral, direct tax (upper left); a revenue-neutral, cap-and-trade system (lower left); a revenue-generating, direct tax (upper right); and a revenue-generating, cap-and-trade system (lower right).

CARBON PRICING PROGRAMS

 Does it generate net revenue?

No:  Revenue Neutral Yes:  Generates Revenue
Direct Tax
  • Carbon Washington’s  I-732
  • The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy Plan? (Unclear since not yet proposed)6
Cap-and-Trade
  • Inslee’s 2015 Legislative Plan

How does it work?

Thus, Inslee’s plan was a revenue-generating, cap-and-trade system, and the additional tax revenue was intended to be used largely for education and transportation purposes.  The Carbon Washington I-732 plan is a revenue-neutral, direct tax.  All of the carbon tax revenue that this plan generates is used to lower other taxes – a 1% cut in the state sales tax, a cut the business (“B&O”) tax, and a tax credit of up to $1,500 for working families.  The AJCE has not yet proposed its plan, but it has suggested that an effective plan should not be revenue-neutral, but should instead generate tax revenue that can be used to provide funding for key priorities, like education, jobs, housing and transit.  The AJCE emphasizes climate justice – acknowledging that lower-income and minority communities will be especially impacted by climate change, and that public investments should reflect this.  

It is not the purpose of this article to go into detail on these plans, nor to offer opinions on their relative merits.  Instead, the purposes here are to acknowledge that this is the time in Washington’s history when serious plans to place a price on carbon are being developed; that there are differing proposals for how to best achieve this; and to provide a simple framework (above) for contrasting them conceptually.

Finally, it is important to note that there are differing views about how to effect the implementation of a carbon pricing plan, given that there are competing proposals.  One approach is to study and debate the plans in an effort to determine which plan is best, and then to support this one specific plan.  Obviously, it is important to vet the various proposals and make informed choices about which one(s) to support.  However, a risk inherent to being overly committed to this approach is that it runs the risk of splintering the environmental community, which may reduce the chances of any proposal passing.  A second approach is a willingness to support any high quality, well-structured proposal, under the view that it will likely take several attempts before any measure succeeds, and that it is important to support each one during its turn at the ballot.  Surely, some hybrid of these two approaches to implementation is appropriate.  Intelligent people can come to different opinions, not only on which proposal is best, but also on which approach to implementation is most appropriate.  I lean toward the latter approach to implementation (i.e., I am willing to support any high quality, well-designed approach).  Thus, I supported Governor Inslee’s plan; now that it has failed, I am supporting I-732; and if that fails and The AJCE comes forth with a high quality proposal, I will support that.  The establishment of a high quality statewide system to tax carbon is, in my view, the critical objective.

CONCLUSION

It seems reasonable to state that the inadequate response to climate change is the major public policy failure of our time.  History rightfully heaps scorn on the peoples of eras who invoke absurd rationales to justify egregiously immoral behavior for economic gain (e.g., slavery, colonialism, supply side economics, etc.).  Our era, due to our woefully inadequate response to climate change, appears destined to face the same historical judgment.

It is an important time in Washington State.  There is a pro-environment governor, some progressive and environmentally-focused legislators, well-organized groups developing ballot measures, and energetic citizen advocacy groups.  I encourage citizens to become highly informed, highly engaged, and highly supportive of efforts to enact momentous climate change policy.

John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools and a former management consultant in corporate strategy.  He recently completed a run for State Senate in the 37th District.  He is writing a monthly article on public policy for the South Seattle Emerald.

Notes:

  1. See Slate Online (slate.com), 1/14/14, for a discussion of this survey.
  2. See Anderegg, Prall, Harold and Schneider (2010), “Expert credibility in climate change.”
  3. George F. Will (2008), One Man’s America:  The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation.
  4. Zoe and Stella Foster vs. Washington Department of Ecology (2015).
  5. Carbon Washington is currently gathering signatures for I-732.  If they meet their quota, the initiative will first be presented to the State Legislature, which has options for moving forward, including (most likely) placing it on the ballot in November, 2016.
  6. As noted, The AJCE has not yet released their proposed plan.  It seems likely that their plan will be revenue-generating, but it is not clear what type of system it will be.  Thus, the question mark is used to indicate the uncertainty about the design of their pending proposal.

Sources:  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; The Seattle Times (8/3/15 and 8/28/15), Crosscut (3/12/15); The Washington Environmental Law Center Website.

Featured Image: Woodley Wonderworks/Flickr

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