Initiative 1631’s success will depend in part on whether Washingtonians realize that they are already paying for climate change in small but costly ways—through the increased power bills incurred by an AC window unit, through the hassle of terrible summer-air quality. It will also force voters to decide whether they’re willing to experiment with climate policy for the rest of the country, even if Washington State’s carbon emissions are a drop in the overflowing global bucket.
As I wrote last year, the Democratic Party says that it cares about climate change—but it has no law ready to pass if it wins control of Congress and the White House. While a Democratic president would surely attempt to use the powers of the executive branch to fight climate change, the party cannot agree on a national legislative plan to combat it.
Read: Democrats are shockingly unprepared to fight climate change
It’s not hard to explain why. Under the U.S. federalist system, states must function as “laboratories of democracy,” testing policies before their debut on the national stage. But only one state, California, has passed aggressive climate policy and attempted to wean its economy off fossil fuels. Washington is trying a different but similarly ambitious approach—something like a “Green New Deal” approach—with 1631.
This century’s defining progressive legislative victory—the Affordable Care Act—would have been impossible if Massachusetts had not implemented a similar, state-level program first under Governor Mitt Romney. If Initiative 1631 passes, it will provide national politicians with another model policy, another civic experiment, to consult if they wish to pass a national climate law.
On a more local level, I suspect that 1631 will also be the Evergreen State’s last chance to pass an aggressive climate policy. Three strikes and you’re out is not an ironclad rule of politics, but it describes the situation here. In 2016, the state first attempted to pass a carbon tax by ballot question. But that measure—which was more libertarian in approach and which lacked the support of some environmental groups—eventually failed. This year, it tried to pass a carbon-pricing scheme through the state legislature. That tactic faltered as well.
If Initiative 1631 fails now, climate activists may not try their luck again. Jay Inslee, the state’s governor and a possible 2020 presidential contender, may try to pass a few smaller climate bills that work around the edges of the problem. But neither he nor national environmental groups might attempt a climate-change fight for some time.
You can sense that desperation in the sheer financial scale of the fight.
BP, Chevron, and other members of the oil industry have spent more than $31 million to defeat the referendum. Their donations make up nearly the entire budget of the “No on 1631” campaign; the local Republican party has also given $298 in noncash contributions. Some of these oil donations suggest hypocrisy: BP, for instance, has previously endorsed the policy of putting a price on carbon. Yet BP has donated $13 million to defeat the measure in Washington State—because, it says, 1631 fails to suspend other laws that it dislikes.