The Taxing Climate Debate: It’s Not About Morals, It’s About Carbon

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Morals do matter, carbon matters more. We need a yes though, we need to start taxing carbon here in WA (also everywhere).

Taxing carbon, or at least marketizing the output of carbon is an absolute no-brainer. Lost in well meaning cries for a “green new deal” is that there is one fairly straightforward solution to climate change: A carbon tax. This idea has fueled a Nobel prize in economics. It even can be done in a revenue neutral way - A way that doesn’t disproportionally burden workers with the cost of combating climate change. You’d think progressives would love that aspect…some sure don’t. And if you’re paying attention to the yellow vest protests in France - keeping carbon taxes revenue neutral is pretty important.

While the  Yellow Vest complaints are no doubt complex , a non revenue neutral gasoline tax spurred them into action.

While the Yellow Vest complaints are no doubt complex, a non revenue neutral gasoline tax spurred them into action.

My hypothesis is that people who live hand to mouth are not keen to pay more to heat their homes or go to work, even if it means saving the planet. If true, feel free to judge them if you want to. We should focus on creating a solution that taxes carbon but gives that money back to working families elsewhere. This still incentivizes everyone to use less carbon - Check out these compelling results from just such a carbon tax in British Colombia and it doesn’t financially hurt people living paycheck to paycheck. It’s one of the purest economic win-wins out there. Yet, here in Washington, carbon remains untaxed despite two ballot measures in 2016 and 2018 trying to do so.

The 2016 initiative was a revenue-neutral approach and lost 40.7% to 59.3%. The 2018 approach was not revenue neutral. It was arguably falsely marketed not as a tax, but a “fee on big emitters” (you know the corporations, not the people who buy the end product of those corporations…) and it lost less badly 56.5% to 43.5%, despite Big Oil spending $30 million in opposition in 2018.

If you want to get into the relative merits of each version check out Carbon Washington’s comparison of 2016’s I-732 to 2018’s I-1632.

I strongly prefer the revenue-neutral approach of I-732 and agrees with infamous local weatherman Cliff Mass’s assessment, even if Mass is needlessly antagonist about it. - No, I don’t care for his tone. - He may or may not be a jerk (some say racist, again we’ll talk about the politics here later). But even if he is racist - Which I’m not taking a position on - He’s right about carbon taxes. His stance agrees with both the UN and that Nobel prize-winning economist.

But most importantly, carbon remains untaxed. That’s bad. Really bad. We can’t solve global warming alone here in little Washington State, but we could be carbon tax thought leaders as we were in both marriage equality and the legalization of recreational cannabis. As Mass argued, doing it best, makes it more likely for our approach to replicated elsewhere.

The carbon tax method isn’t necessarily the biggest blocker to taxing carbon in our state. What if the toxic political atmosphere is? Climate change discusses are often zero-sum, good vs. evil, 100% reductionist virtue signaling. People yell, people tweet. - their anger isn’t misplaced either. But, is it helping pass legislation? I’m skeptical. It’s also interesting that many a progressive here wanted to fund climate initiatives to help marginalized groups by making those very same people pay more for energy.

The key mistake made in most of the rhetoric in this debate is this: Climate change fundamentally isn’t about human morality. Morality is surly a factor in why humans should address climate change, but morals and certainly emotions do not change the climate. Carbon and the slew of greenhouse gases do. How we feel about it, isn’t the primary cause or solution to this problem. Human activity increases the level of carbon in the atmosphere. That’s the headliner. We need to emit less carbon if not even reduce its atmospheric concentration. The right policy, a revenue-neutral approach, nudges everyone to do just that without hurting regular people. That doesn’t mean we can’t use other revenue sources to invest in climate initiatives either. But, the left, through moralizing the issue, blocks the implementation of the best solution.

Well, maybe there is a way to win the left over. I believe there is a win-win here…

I’m preparing a concept for the 2020 election here in WA to do just that. It will be designed to appeal to a wide variety of stakeholders without being a regressive tax on energy like 2018’s I-1632 was. Who knows if I can get it on the ballot, but I should at least try.

If this is possible, I’ll release a proposal after some thoughtful research.



Nathan Chaffetz