by Alex Lenferna
Washington voters who open their voting guides will be in for a surprise when they see a lone atmospheric scientist standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Big Oil to oppose Initiative 1631, a plan to make polluters pay for their pollution and invest in clean energy and healthy communities.
That lone scientist is Cliff Mass, the controversial University of Washington Professor of Atmospheric Sciences. Big Oil is using him as a prop in their messaging to claim that they have scientific support; he is their token scientist. However, as we show here, Cliff’s opposition stems from an inaccurate analysis of 1631, and is grounded not so much in science, but rather in a narrow anti-government ideology, which was revealed when, for instance, Cliff compared Native Tribes, communities of color, and unions to pigs for advocating for investments in their communities.
Those who care for Washington communities, clean energy, clean air, and climate change aren’t buying Cliff and Big Oil’s arguments, and it’s because they’re mostly bad (already debunked) arguments. Almost two hundred scientists, health, policy and social science experts have endorsed 1631, including Nobel Prize winners, NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal recipients, and numerous health associations, including the King County Medical Society, the Puget Sound Asthma Coalition, and the Washington State Medical Association.
Hundreds of local organizations, communities, and businesses are supporting 1631 too; groups such as the UW’s Academic Student Employees Union, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, League of Women Voters, UFCW 21, PCC Farm Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and the Latino Community Fund. We could continue listing supporting organizations for a long time, because 1631 supporters represent the broadest initiative coalition in Washington’s history — as opposed to the $22 million No Campaign which is 99.8 percent funded by a handful of big oil companies like Chevron and BP.
Not only is Cliff deeply outnumbered, his arguments are also weak and inaccurate, and if successful would lead to climate inaction and rob Washington’s most needy communities of much needed funding.
Analysis of Initiative 1631 shows that if it is passed it will likely reduce as much if not more climate change causing carbon pollution than 2016’s failed carbon tax proposal, Initiative 732, which Cliff previously endorsed. Facts and economic modelling be damned, Cliff makes exaggerated claims like 1631 will be “totally ineffective helping us deal with climate change.”
In his (certainly not peer-reviewed) blog, Cliff inaccurately draws on analysis by Carbon Washington, the non-profit behind I-732, to say that 1631 will do less than 732 would have to reduce carbon pollution. He does so by ignoring the fact that 1631 will invest billions in clean energy. If we incorporate the impacts of those investments, then 1631 gradually outpaces 732 in reducing carbon pollution, according to very same analysis Cliff drew on, but either distorted or failed to understand.
So, on the question of how 1631 will affect climate change, the only issue Cliff is somewhat relevantly qualified to speak on, he is inconsistent and wrong.
Cliff’s blogs show that his opposition to 1631 is based more on narrow anti-government ideology than it is in science. This initiative aims to fund investments in renewable energy, clean air and water, resilient forests, healthy communities, and a just transition away from fossil fuels. For Cliff though, those advocating for investments in Washington’s communities and environment are merely “selfish” (as opposed seemingly to the selfless oil companies Cliff is working with).
In his most recent blog, Cliff compares tribal nations, communities of color, and laborers to pigs for asking for investments in their communities. It’s a disturbing, callous and arguably racist analogy, which fails to recognize how these communities are so often overlooked and underfunded in Washington. It also fails to see how these investments are grounded in principles of climate justice, ensuring that those who are most impacted by pollution, climate change, and the transition away from fossil fuels are not left behind.
Cliff’s sad world-view reduces advocates for public investment to mere special interests, the radical left, and greedy pigs, rather than seeing Washington’s beautiful and diverse people and communities working together to make polluters pay for their pollution so they can invest in solutions, in their communities, and in a just transition away from fossil fuels.
Additionally, Cliff’s bright solution is to try put forward a climate policy that panders to the right by being revenue neutral, like Initiative 732, which we already tried, and already failed. I-732 failed to pass in Washington’s broken legislature, like all meaningful climate policy over the decades, hence why it went to the ballot.
The earlier initiative also failed to win voter support on the ballot, by a large 18-point margin. We should know, we served on the Steering Committee of Carbon Washington, which put forward 732, and though we worked darn hard on it, the policy just was not popular enough to succeed, not by a long shot, whereas 1631, which Carbon Washington supports, might just be popular enough to pass.
Cliff’s theory of change is like that of a spoilt toddler. If he just bangs his fists on the table and shouts loud enough about his favourite small government solution for long enough, then somehow the Washington legislature and the people of Washington will magically get on board.
That’s not how political change works. It is about working together to craft policies that are popular and effective, and building the political power and alliances needed to get them passed. That’s the hard work that 1631 supporters have done, and which Cliff is jeopardizing by lending his voice to Big Oil’s no campaign.
I-1631 is a strong and effective policy which will make polluters pay, and invest in renewable energy, clean air and water, resilient forests, healthy communities, and a just transition away from fossil fuels. Is 1631 perfect? No, it isn’t, but no climate policy is. I-732 certainly wasn’t either, far from it.
Rather than advocating against action in favour of a climate strategy which already failed, we are working with the broadest coalition in Washington’s history to pass a powerful climate policy, because the science is telling us we don’t have time to wait, especially not to wait for solutions like Cliff’s which have little chance of passing any time soon — that’s probably why Big Oil likes him so much.
Alex Lenferna is a Fulbright Scholar and lecturer at the University of Washington focusing on environmental and climate ethics. Ben Silesky is a field organizer with Audubon Washington.
Both served on the steering committee of Carbon Washington which put forward Initiative 732.
Featured Image: Alex Lenferna. Members of Front and Centered, a state-wide coalition of more than 60 organizations and groups rooted in communities of color and people with lower incomes, who helped design 1631.