NW View: Let’s have the conversation on state carbon-pricing plan

Gov. Jay Inslee is right: It’s time for Washingtonians to talk carbon. He’d be wise, though, to let the political conversation play out before issuing executive orders.

Carbon pollution has not been on the front burner in this state. We’ve mostly been fretting about economic recovery, budgets and funding public education. Inslee made a game attempt this year to enact a cap-and-trade system, but his own Democratic Party wouldn’t bring it to a vote in the House of Representatives. That fact alone shows that the idea has a long way to go.

Here’s what we think Washingtonians should know about carbon emissions:

▪  Global warming is not a hoax. Human industry is dumping more than 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year – yes, that’s a 3 with 10 zeros behind it – and scientists overwhelmingly agree that the resulting greenhouse effect is raising the temperature of the planet.

▪  The polluters are not paying the costs of the pollution. People who profit directly from carbon emissions should shoulder more of the cost. And – uncomfortable truth – anyone who enjoys a high standard of living in an industrial society profits indirectly from the burning of fossil fuels.

▪  A well-designed carbon-pricing plan would help shift costs from the public to polluters and create a powerful incentive to reduce greenhouse emissions.

▪  Congress is paralyzed on the issue, but state-by-state action can be effective. A carbon-pricing plan in Washington alone would have a negligible effect on global emissions. But California already has a cap-and-trade system, British Columbia has a carbon tax and nine East Coast states run a regional cap-and-trade plan that covers their dirty power industries.

These piecemeal efforts are adding up to a significant chunk of the world economy, and the addition of Washington would help make carbon-pricing a North American norm (as it is in Europe).

Inslee has a wonderful passion for fighting climate change; unfortunately, that passion has translated into an impulse to bypass politics with decrees. He was recently on the verge of unilaterally imposing a low-carbon fuel standard, and now he’s announced plans to order a statewide cap on carbon emissions.

In the absence of public support, decrees don’t persuade; they produce backlash.

Washington is about to have a public conversation about carbon. A signature campaign now under way would put a British Columbia-style carbon tax on the ballot next year. It’s being run by mavericks outside the environmental establishment. Mainstream groups, outfits like the Sierra Club and Northwest Energy Solutions, appear to prefer an Inslee-style cap-and-trade system.

A squabble has begun between them. That’s a good thing, because the argument will help educate voters about the issues and the options.

Either a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax can work, if well designed and adapted to a state’s political culture. Environmentalists should not lightly dismiss the proposed tax initiative. It has the virtue of being revenue-neutral and easy to explain: “You tax carbon emissions, then you give all the money back to the public by lowering the sales tax, giving tax credits to the working poor and tax relief to manufacturers.”

It might be called “carbon tax-and-rebate.” Even some conservatives have endorsed the concept. It could be an easier sell in this state than a cap-and-trade system, whose mechanisms are harder to explain. There’s been some talk about earmarking cap-and-trade revenues for Democratic constituencies, which would probably be the kiss of death.

So let’s have the debate. Open minds and noisy discussions are needed. The voters must be brought along. That begins with public education, not commands from on high.


This column reflects the views of the editorial board of the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma.