Nearly two years after Trump’s inauguration, there’s still only one state—California—that can claim to have anything like a robust, economy-wide climate program. And while California’s policies have been expanded and strengthened by a Democratic “trifecta,” one of its most important climate laws was signed into law in 2006 by a moderate Republican governor. (Albeit a very unusual Republican—a former movie star who would probably not be a Republican today.)
Nick Abraham, who organized the ballot campaign in Washington, told me that the difficulty lay in converting urban support for climate policy into state-level victories.
“The wider you go, the harder this thing is,” he said. He pointed to a successful ballot question in Portland, Oregon, that imposed a new tax on large retailers to fund wind and solar projects. “I’m sure we won Seattle by the same margin that Portland won their initiative,” he said.
Theory 3: The Exxon of My Enemy Is My Friend
Some have argued that fossil-fuel companies are key to combatting climate change. ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have all called for a carbon tax in the United States. Last month, Exxon even donated $1 million to the nonprofit that supports their preferred plan; BP’s chief executive has promised to cut emissions and made concerned noises about climate change to The New York Times.
“A company getting behind its product being taxed is a very rare thing,” remarked Lawrence Summers, a Harvard economist and former treasury secretary, after the Exxon news broke. “This reflects a new and important awareness that we have to do big things about climate.”
Yet those same fossil-fuel companies bankrolled the campaign against Washington’s proposed carbon tax. BP dumped $13 million into the state in order to block the measure—even though it claims to support a carbon tax. Overall, a handful of oil companies spent $31 million to defeat the initiative, making it the most expensive ballot-question fight in Washington State history.
The scale of that spend will only increase suspicions that the oil industry’s claimed support for climate policy is not in good faith. And it will intensify pressure on Democrats to swear off all donations from fossil-fuel companies.
Theory 4: A Tax by Any Other Name Would Be More Sweet
For decades, economists have favored carbon prices because they create disincentives for carbon emissions without picking technological winners and losers among alternate energy sources. The most famous scholar of carbon taxes won a Nobel Prize in economics this year. But American voters have not had the same ardor for the idea, even when they love renewable energy (which carbon taxes will support) and want to regulate carbon emissions (which carbon taxes do). And some critics, especially on the left, have recently grown skeptical of the policy as a cure-all for climate change. They do not reject carbon taxes entirely, but insist that they should be one small aspect of a much more ambitious platform.