Environmental Justice Activists Push Back on Inslee Cap-and-Trade Proposal

by Elizabeth Turnbull

Front and Centered, a coalition focused on racial equity and environmental justice, held a media briefing on Thursday, Feb. 18, featuring members of its Community Council to address pollution and its effects on communities of color across the nation. At the briefing, panelists specifically pushed against cap-and-trade policy proposals, including one in Washington State.

At the end of last year, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed revisiting the idea of enacting a cap-and-trade plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions in Washington. The bill would place restrictions on total emissions for the largest polluters in the state — the “cap” in “cap and trade.” The cap is a moving target as lowering the cap over time to reduce overall emissions is built into the law. Those same polluters under cap and trade can also buy and trade allowances or means to help the companies meet the requirements of the declining cap — the allowances being the “trade” in cap and trade. Cap-and-trade laws are essentially negotiating tools for polluters and local governments aimed at generating tax revenue while simultaneously lowering emissions overall, but polluters may buy their way to allowances to exceed current emissions caps and/or offset their emissions by making qualifying investments. So the cap is a moving target in that sense too.

With the estimated $600 million to $1 billion in revenue per year generated by this plan, Inslee would invest in clean energy programs as well as social equity measures aimed specifically at  communities of color. 

However, during Thursday’s media briefing, panelists focused on the environmental impacts of pollutants on BIPOC communities and pressed for other alternatives to a cap-and-trade plan, which some panelists described as a distraction and not the best strategy for reducing emissions and limiting the impacts on people and communities of color — who are often disproportionately affected by climate change and pollution.

For instance, much of the revenue from Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal wouldn’t immediately be used for programs such as the Working Families Tax Credit, a program for low-income families, Crosscut reported in December, one touted by Inslee as an example of what this new income source would fund. 

“The best way to counter [cap-and-trade] is just stop proposing it, stop bringing it up,” said Jill Mangalimen, executive director of Got Green, a justice organization based in South Seattle.   Mangalimen, who is also part of the leadership at Front and Centered, said, “This is not a solution to our problems and so why are we spending time and energy on it?”

One of the panelists, Katie Valenzuela, a Sacramento City Council Member and national climate justice consultant, specifically referenced the cap-and-trade program in California as a warning to policy makers in Washington.

The California program was the first in the nation to form an economy-wide carbon market, but years after it first began in 2013, environmental justice advocates have criticized the program for what they say has resulted in further pollution in vulnerable communities. Government officials in California maintain that the program has not resulted in worse air quality in vulnerable, low-income communities.

Unfortunately, there’s currently limited data on the impacts of cap and trade on California communities, posing problems for diagnosing whether a similar program in Washington would increase or decrease pollution among communities with high numbers of low income, BIPOC, or immigrant populations.

Overall, members of Front and Centered and panelists such as Susan Balbas, the executive director of the Na’ah Illahee Fund, an Indigenous women-led organization dedicated to the ongoing regeneration of Indigenous communities, are pushing for pollution solutions that center communities that are disproportionately impacted. In addition, they demand that policy makers and governments seek the consultation of Native people, create green jobs, and transition to renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

While Gov. Insleee’s cap-and-trade program is one of two pieces of legislation in a larger climate policy package he outlined in December of last year, which aims to reduce the state’s emissions by 30% by 2030, it’s not the only bill relevant to environmental justice concerns. The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, sponsored by South End Senator Rebecca Saldaña, would require that environmental justice be applied to policies in all state agencies. That legislation is currently in committee.

Front and Centered has been working on the HEAL Act as it has gone through iterations. Among various provisions, the act aims to define environmental justice in State law, including fair treatment and involvement of people from all racial and national backgrounds and equity for certain groups that have been disproportionately impacted.

Sen. Saldaña stated in an online briefing hosted by Front and Centered in January, “It’s about the accumulation of unintended and intentional lack of centering Black lives, Indigenous lives, and the Communities of Color and immigrants in the work that has led to having a map that shows that there are certain communities across our state that pay a much higher price in health and in opportunity than others in our state, and that it was by design. And so it is by design, at the central part of how our agencies function, that we must embed environmental justice into the statute of Washington State.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.

Featured image by Joe Brusky via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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