Washington State Likely Rejects a Historic Carbon Tax

If climate policy can’t win in the Evergreen State, can it win anywhere?

Locals observe the flooded waters of the Stillaguamish River in Standwood, Washington, on November 18, 2015. (David Ryder / Reuters)

If Democrats ever want to fight climate change at the national level, they’ll need help from state-level progressives first. Blue states will need to function as “laboratories of democracy,” trying out creative new climate policies and finding their faults before their debut on the national stage.

On Tuesday, Democrats didn’t get that help.

Though progressives cruised to victory in Washington State—Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, easily won reelection—by late Tuesday night, voters appeared almost certain to reject Initiative 1631, a ballot question that would have established the nation’s first carbon tax. With 64 percent of the vote counted, 56 percent of voters opposed the measure—enough of a rout that The Seattle Times declared it defeated. The Associated Press has yet to call the race.

Initiative 1631 took a so-called Green New Deal approach—it would have used revenue raised by a new carbon fee to fund conservation projects, renewable-energy farms, and struggling communities throughout the state. The measure faced unprecedented headwinds: The “No on 1631” organization was the wealthiest ballot-question campaign in state history. Almost all of its $31 million budget came from a handful of oil companies, including BP, Chevron, and Koch Industries.

But Initiative 1631 was supported by the state’s governor, Jay Inslee, and most of its environmental groups. “I’m going to do everything I can for it,” Inslee told me in August, calling the proposal a “very well-balanced, thoughtful policy.”

The initiative’s likely defeat suggests that one of the most progressive states in the union still struggles to pass muscular climate policy. The loss is the third recent setback for climate policy in Washington. In 2016, voters rejected a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the ballot, though that measure was opposed by most of the state’s environmental groups. And earlier this year, the state legislature failed to pass a carbon-tax law similar to 1631.

Supporters of 1631 had hoped that President Donald Trump’s climate rollbacks would finally spur counteraction from residents of the Evergreen State.

“Donald Trump is a very inspirational, unifying figure. He’s unified the Democratic Party like never before,” Inslee told me in August. “When you know you’re on your own, when you know you’re not going to have salvation from the White House, it focuses your attention that we need to take action.”

Voters appear to disagree with the governor. Nick Abraham, an organizer for the “Yes on 1631” campaign, told me Tuesday night that there were still too many votes waiting to be counted for the campaign to concede. “The main takeaway from the night is that people know this problem is only going to get worse, and that this coalition’s not going anywhere,” he told me.

With 1631 defeated, California remains the only state in the country with an aggressive climate policy.