Initiative 1631, which would have created a carbon tax in Washington State, lost by almost 12% of the vote this week. Commentators on all sides have interpreted this as a decisive defeat for carbon pricing, making more indirect policies like subsidies to renewables the only politically feasible option.*
I don’t have time for a lengthy analysis, but in a few words I want to suggest that this conclusion is premature. I live in Washington State and saw the battle unfold first hand in real time. Voters were not asked by opponents of 1631 to reject carbon pricing; on the contrary. And it was the failure to draft and promote a straight-ahead carbon pricing law that doomed it.
While supporters of 1631 point to money from fossil fuel interests as the “cause” of their defeat, the actual propaganda of the No side did not belittle the threat of climate change, nor did it even argue against the need for action to reduce emissions. It hammered on these points:
1. 1631 was weak. It excluded too much of the state’s emissions and wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on them.
2. Nevertheless it would raise energy bills for virtually all the state’s residents.
3. It proposed an undemocratic procedure for allocating carbon revenues.
The money behind this message may be “bad”, but the message itself was correct. 1631 was so poorly conceived that the arguments of the troglodytes were closer to the truth than those of the progressives. Take them one by one:
1. 1631 was the second carbon tax initiative in two years. Last year’s effort, I-732, had broader coverage and allowed for higher carbon prices over time. It was opposed by progressives, who organized to defeat it and then drew up their own, weaker proposal. There is a lot of detail to go into, but the short version is that 1631’s carbon price was essentially symbolic, a few cents on the carbon dollar. It was not a meaningful action to deal with the threat of a climate catastrophe.