2016's Most Interesting Climate-Change Fights Are in the States

Ballot provisions in Washington and Florida reveal the conflicting ways that Americans are responding to climate change.

Clouds from Hurricane Matthew begin to form over Miami in this aerial photo from October 5, 2016. (Reuters)

For people concerned about climate change, the top of this year’s ballot barely presents a choice.

On the one hand, there’s Donald Trump.  He’s said that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. If elected, he would immediately halt Obama’s “job-killing” executive actions to restrict power-plant emissions. He’d pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, which could destroy the fragile international consensus on lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. Just this week, he said he would cut all U.S. support for UN climate-change research. He also wants to expand coal and natural-gas production.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, says that climate change is a real thing that humans have caused. So that’s one advantage right there.

More substantively, most of her climate policies would advance the Obama administration’s attempts to push the country toward renewable energy. She promises to strengthen the president’s Clean Power Plan and defend it in court, while pushing his impressive (and broadly successful) energy-efficiency rules forward. She also wants to see the United States install half a billion solar panels by 2020, which, as one renewable-energy expert told me, is “a hell of a lot of solar panels.”

Lux Research, an energy consulting and research firm, projects that Trump’s policies as compared to Clinton’s would lead to 3.4 billion tons of additional carbon emissions by 2024.

Lux Research

That’s the presidential election. In short, one candidate doesn’t believe that one of the most challenging problems of our time exists, and moreover he wants to make it worse as soon as possible. He would, as one writer put it, “cook the planet.” The other will try to remedy it with the tools at her disposal—though climate activists are already planning to push her to act faster.

Woof. Though a bracing choice, it isn’t a particularly novel one. American voters have faced a choice somewhat like this in every presidential election since 2000, although the GOP position on climate change has gotten more extreme over time.

Yet there are fascinating electoral battles over climate change this year—they’re just tucked away in the states. Florida and Washington will both consider ballot initiatives that could shape the U.S. climate-change debate for years, and Nevada and Colorado will vote on referenda with environmental undertones. Taken together, these state referenda present a window into how climate change functions as an issue in the United States in 2016, how it connects to other political concerns, and how it could change in the years to come. Here’s a brief tour.

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Expanding renewable energy is one of the few climate issues that Americans broadly favor. A Pew survey earlier this year found that more than 80 percent of the country supports boosting solar and wind power.

It’s so popular, in fact, that energy companies seem to be trafficking in the language of green energy while actually obstructing their progress.

Enter Florida, where voters face a bait-and-switch ballot initiative. On its face, the referendum known as Amendment 1 seems to alter the state’s constitution so that Floridians gain a constitutional right to own or lease solar equipment. So far, so bland. Advertisements supporting the initiative (most of are underwritten by state power utilities) imply that the measure will help solar power grow in the state.

But Floridians already have a right to own solar equipment, provided by state statute. And Amendment 1 actually includes a second, more important provision: It “[enacts] constitutional protection ensuring that … residents who do not produce solar energy can abstain from subsidizing its production.”

Why does that matter? Right now, Floridians are able to buy solar panels and then sell any excess energy back to their utility company. This behavior, called “net metering,” is a standard benefit of owning solar panels across the country, but it can—in a certain, corporate-socialistic light—be seen as a “subsidy” by other rate payers. Amendment 1’s critics believe it lays the legal groundwork to ban net metering. This would make owning and providing solar energy more expensive.

And here’s the thing: Supporters of Amendment 1 appear to agree with them. In a secret recording obtained by the Miami Herald, the vice president of a conservative think tank funded by the utility industry called Amendment 1 an “incredibly savvy maneuver” that would “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”

“As you guys look at policy in your state, or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: Solar polls very well,” he added.

In other words, Amendment 1 seems almost designed to deceive voters. Al Gore calls it a “phoney-baloney” initiative, and environmental groups widely oppose it. As does, The New York Times adds, Jimmy Buffett. Clean energy is now so popular that its opponents have to trick voters.

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Meanwhile, in the other corner of the country, Washingtonians are debating another critical climate policy, though one that’s far less popular in the United States.

Ballot Initiative 732 would introduce a carbon tax in Washington state. If adopted, Washingtonians would pay a tax, collected at the gas pump and in their utility bill, for every ton of carbon dioxide that they emit. The fee—starting at $15 per ton of carbon in 2017, jumping to $25 per ton in 2018, then rising 3.5 percent plus inflation annually until it reached $100—would quickly become the most stringent carbon tax in North America. The national carbon tax that Canada passed this year peaks at about $38 per ton of carbon.

More critically, the I-732 plan would become the first carbon tax in the United States. And it would do so in a “revenue-neutral” way: For the roughly $2.2 billion in revenue brought in by the carbon tax, the state would make about $2.2 billion in cuts to other taxes: $400 million in cuts to the manufacturers’ tax, $300 million in once-per-year rebates to working people, and a 1 percent cut in the state sales tax.

Sounds good, right? I-732 meets a centrist policy goal in a transparent, conservative-friendly way—more or less realizing the ideal Pigovian tax that economists hope will mitigate carbon emissions. And as an added plus, I-732 would make Washington’s state tax system a little more progressive. (The state currently lacks a personal income tax, so it relies heavily on sales tax revenue, making its state tax system the most regressive in the country.)

And yet. If I-732 wins on Tuesday, it will do so narrowly. A wide swath of progressive groups across the state oppose the measure, including the local Democratic Party, labor unions, civil-rights activists, and many environmental groups. The Sierra Club announced that it does not support the measure (though it specifically doesn’t oppose it, either). Many of these organizations are part of a different group that supports a carbon tax—a different one—named the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy.

The Alliance doesn’t support I-732 because it hopes to introduce a much broader, revenue-positive carbon tax as a ballot initiative in the next few years. It says that this plan—which isn’t yet finished—will cap total emissions while redistributing more revenue to working people, communities of color, and new infrastructure construction.

“We have to restructure the economy,” Edgar Franks, a member of the Alliance, tells In These Times. “You can have a healthy environment or you can have capitalism. You can’t have both.”

In short, I-732 aims to reduce carbon emissions while leaving the rest of the economy untouched and while nudging the state’s tax code toward progressiveness. The Alliance wants to take more drastic steps, seemingly adopting Naomi Klein’s philosophy that climate activists must push the full slate of left policy goals in order to mitigate climate devastation. If you’re sympathetic to the Alliance’s goals, you see a movement laudably involving labor groups and communities of color in environmentalist politics, which have been historically white-dominated; if you’re skeptical of them, you see a hypothetical new tax that will hand out millions to darlings of the Democratic coalition.

This is how I-732, a centrist policy initiative that affects an area of wide public concern, might fail in a deep-blue state. It is a fight that, in Washington, is partly about competing theories of change: If you’re a liberal, do you show the country that a moderate climate tax is possible? Or do you hold out for a much more redistributive plan?

It is, in other words, a fight that the country would be having if one of our two national parties believed climate change exists. And it is a fight that points to how the national Democratic Party may struggle with climate change as an issue in the future. Should climate policy only address the climate? Or should it be used to transform the government in line with other progressive goals?

Yoram Bauman, the architect of I-732, is despondent about what the fight means. “I am increasingly convinced that the path to climate action is through the Republican Party,” he told the Harvard economist Greg Mankiw last year. “Yes, there are challenges on the right—skepticism about climate science and about tax reform—but those are surmountable with time and effort. The same cannot be said of the challenges on the Left: an unyielding desire to tie everything to bigger government, and a willingness to use race and class as political weapons in order to pursue that desire.”

If you’re interested in reading more about I-732, I recommend Kate Aronoff’s feature on why the left opposes a carbon tax. And if you’re really interested in it, I recommend David Roberts’ detailed tick tock at Vox of how competing carbon-tax coalitions came into existence.

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Elsewhere in the country, climate hovers at the edge of the debate. It tends to intersect with other questions of governance rather than raise its own.

In Colorado, for instance, a referendum named Amendment 71 would make it harder for citizens to change the state’s constitution by referendum. Nicknamed “Raise the Bar,” it requires a 55 percent majority to alter the Constitution, and not the simple majority required to change state law. (Right now, a ballot initiative can alter either the Constitution or add to state statute via a simple majority vote.)

Yet it’s the energy industry has supplied almost 75 percent of the funding behind Raise the Bar, according to the Pulitzer-winning Inside Climate News. Many activists see it as an oil-funded attempt to limit the ability of citizens to restrict fracking or fossil fuel mining. Two different anti-fracking inititatives failed to make the ballot in Colorado this year. That’s why the Sierra Club opposes Amendment 71, as do other local environmental groups.

The support for Amendment 71 is much bigger than just fossil fuel companies, though. All living former Colorado governors support “Raise the Bar,” as does the sitting Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper. The Denver Post opposes Raise the Bar, but not for environmental reasons: While it supports some electoral reform, the newspaper’s editorial board says the current bar is hard enough to clear.

Likewise, in Nevada, a ballot initiative named Question 3 asks whether the state energy utility should be deregulated and turned into an open energy market. Proponents say that the new energy market will allow consumers to buy more renewable energy, and that market pressure will push power suppliers into investing in more clean power. Its critics and supporters scramble along odd lines: Harry Reid, the Nevada Conservation League, and a number of solar panel manufacturers all support the question; the AFL-CIO, the Culinary Union, and the state comptroller (a Republican) all oppose it.

The state’s Sierra Club has not taken a position. “We need to implement Energy Choice in a thoughtful way. That means all suppliers should contribute equally to achieving clear, aggressive clean energy goals by rapidly reducing fossil fuels in the electric sector and replacing them with renewable energy and energy efficiency,” said a spokesman in a statement.

In both of Nevada and Colorado’s questions, climate issues seem like only part of the equation: Issues of market structure or governmental reform may loom larger for many voters.

If anything, that makes climate change function on these ballot questions much like it does in other elections: something that voters take into consideration but don’t let dominate their decision. That makes sense given the data. Americans are broadly concerned about climate change. About 39 percent of people would support a $10 carbon tax. But voter intensity on the issue—that is, whether someone decides between two candidates based on their climate position, or says that climate is why they voted—is fairly low. That may be partly because climate change is one of many substantive policy disagreements between Republicans and Democrats, and partisanship seems to drive climate concern. For now, climate is one more divisive issue. As soon as Republicans adopt it, though, watch out.