Feeling the Heat: A Carbon Tax Gains Grassroots Momentum in Washington State

Seattle on the summer solstice. Crowds line Fremont Avenue in anticipation of the annual parade of naked bicyclists. Carbon Washington co-director Kyle Murphy is giving a pep talk to a group of volunteers that includes idealistic college students, veteran environmentalists, and former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

“You’re simply offering them the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. You don’t need to persuade anyone, just give them a chance to say yes.”

Seattle, June 2015: Petitioning for Carbon Washington.

Seattle, June 2015: Petitioning for Carbon Washington.

I’m helping Carbon Washington (CW) collect signatures for Measure I-732, which would put a carbon tax on the state ballot in 2016. In general, people want to participate. Almost no one turns me down. I pass out multiple signature sheets as parade-goers fumble for pens. I’m talking to eight people at once, even while competing with the naked bikers for attention. A record-breaking drought is setting the stage for a long wildfire season, and climate change is already on everyone’s mind. In a single afternoon we collect more than 1,500 signatures.

The appeal of CW’s proposal is rooted in its overarching simplicity. Polluters pay, everyone else benefits. The measure would put a price on carbon emissions, forcing fossil fuel companies to internalize some of the social and environmental externalities of their business. The tax starts at $15 per ton of CO2, rises to $25 in year two, and then increases at 3.5% plus inflation annually. This long and steady increase will drive down CO2 emissions in the state.

Emissions would fall more if Washington's power wasn't nearly all hydro. (Source: CTAM model)

Emissions would fall more if Washington’s power wasn’t nearly all hydro. (Source: CTAM model)

The tax is revenue neutral to appeal to conservatives. It uses the expected $1.7 billion in annual revenue to overhaul Washington State’s notoriously regressive tax code. Most of the money goes to lower the state sales tax from 6.5% to 5.5%. The 3.5% annual increase in the carbon tax is designed to carefully offset the rising value of the sales tax reduction, so that the measure stays revenue-neutral for 40 years. Another $200 million a year is used to fund the Working Families Rebate – an extension of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. These two pieces make I-732 the state’s most progressive tax legislation since groceries were exempted from sales taxes in 1977.

The third element of CW’s plan takes $200M to eliminate the state’s Business & Occupation tax on manufacturers. The intent is to make the state’s businesses more competitive and cushion any job losses due to the tax. The average manufacturer will pay in carbon taxes close to what it will gain from the elimination of the B&O tax. Unlike the B&O tax, however, carbon taxes do not increase as the business grows – as long as it can grow without increasing its carbon emissions.

Still, Carbon Washington faces high hurdles. A ballot initiative requires 246,372 signatures – 8% of the votes cast for governor in the most recent election. Since up to one-quarter of signatures fail the verification process, CW is aiming for 315,000. Successful initiatives, like a Michael Bloomberg-financed gun-control measure that passed in 2014, have needed to raise around a million dollars to reach that threshold. Carbon Washington is hoping to rely on an extensive volunteer network to do it for less than half the price. Still, more funding and volunteers are needed.

Measure I-732 steers revenues to households and manufacturers.

Measure I-732 steers revenues to households and manufacturers.

Assuming CW succeeds, it’ll have to defend its proposal on the ballot against the inevitable onslaught of Koch-funded interest groups. Some other environmental groups are skeptical that Washingtonians will vote for a proposal that openly uses the dreaded ‘T’ word. Climate Solutions, a regional organization, threw its weight behind Governor Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal. Despite attempts to appeal to Republicans, including a carve-out for the state’s only coal plant, that proposal failed to gain traction in the legislature. Climate Solutions isn’t backing CW’s proposal, afraid to lose what will surely be a big fight.

Yet if the conversations I had were any indication, Washingtonians are receptive. They have an example to their north, in British Columbia, of a successful and popular carbon tax, so oil industry scare tactics may prove less effective with voters. In polls, support varies between 30% and 60%, depending on how the issue is framed. Victory will be determined by whether enough voters can be educated about the proposal. By talking to voters and collecting signatures one at a time, Carbon Washington is getting a head start.

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Last modified: July 16, 2015

Earth Institute Chief Trashes the Carbon Tax

Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s prestigious Earth Institute, recently weighed in on the carbon-tax debate in the Huffington Post. The results are breathtaking – and not in a good way.

Cohen’s June 8 screed, “A Carbon Tax Is Not Feasible or Practical,” was a riposte to a New York Times editorial two days earlier endorsing a carbon tax as “one of the best policies available” to address global warming. The Times is wrong, says Cohen, as he proceeds to lay out a multi-count indictment. Among his anti-CT arguments are the following:

1. Carbon taxes are politically infeasible: Given the system’s deep hostility to tax hikes, “the space between the carbon tax as a policy idea and the reality of American politics is too vast to overcome. For better or worse, here in America we are in a period of tax policy paralysis that is unlikely to be surmounted anytime soon.”

2. Carbon taxes are unfair: They “cause people on the lower end of the economic ladder to pay a higher portion of their income on energy,” while corrective measures aimed at redistributing the costs “are far from simple to implement, might stigmatize recipients, and would become easy and obvious political targets.”

3. Contrary to The Times, carbon taxes are unequal to the problem of climate change because they would founder on the shoals of international politics: “China and India would need to go along, and given the urgency of their energy and development needs, it is difficult to imagine that they would agree to such a measure.”

4. Carbon taxes are anti-urban: “I sometimes think the push for a carbon tax comes out of an early 20th century environmentalist mindset that scolds people for consumption and living in evil, immoral cities.”

5. Finally, carbon taxes are unnecessary since tax breaks can be just as easily used to encourage alternative energy development: “Why waste time and effort on an infeasible policy that will never happen? Why not devote time and effort to building a real partnership between the public and private sector to create a sustainable economy?”

NYT-CohenCareful readers will notice that the first two items are variations on a theme, which is to say the futility of relying on the U.S. political system to pass a well-crafted carbon-tax plan that discourages fossil fuels without burdening workers and the poor. The same can be said for number three, which is about the inability of a beggar-thy-neighbor international system to institute significant reform. Whether the fault lies with Washington, Beijing, or New Delhi, Cohen argues, the point remains that politicians of all nationalities are too selfish and shortsighted to deal intelligently with a carbon tax, so it’s best to forget the whole thing.

Charges four and five are different, so let’s tackle those first. [Read more…]

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Last modified: June 27, 2015

Climate Idealism Can’t Hold a Candle to Collective Action

Why do Copenhageners ride bicycles? The key reason, says Yale economist and best-selling author (“Irrational Exuberance”) Robert J. Shiller, is that Danes are idealists who resolved, after the oil crisis of the 1970s, “to make a personal commitment to ride bicycles rather than drive, out of moral principle, even if that was inconvenient for them.”

“The sight of so many others riding bikes motivated the city’s inhabitants and appears to have improved the moral atmosphere enough,” Shiller wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, that the share of working inhabitants of Copenhagen who bike has reached 50 percent.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

In much the same way, Shiller argues, “asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions” may be a more effective way to bring down carbon emissions than trying to enact overarching national or global policies such as carbon emission caps or taxes.

Goodness. Rarely do smart people so badly mangle both the historical record and basic economics. I say “people” because Shiller attributes his column’s main points to a new book, “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet” by Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund and Martin L. Weitzman, a Harvard economist. And I say “smart” because the three stand at the top of their profession. Shiller won the Economics Nobel in 2013, Weitzman is a leading light in the economics of climate change, and Wagner is highly regarded young economist.

But mangle they have (I haven’t seen the Wagner-Weitzman book but assume that Shiller represents it fairly).

Let’s start with the history, which is fairly well known to anyone versed in cycling advocacy, as I’ve been since the 1980s, when I spearheaded the revival of New York City’s bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (as recounted here.) Copenhagen’s 40-year bicycle upsurge, and indeed much of the uptake of cycling across Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, came about not through mass idealism but from deliberate public policies to help cities avoid the damages of pervasive automobile use while reducing oil dependence.

If idealism played a part at the outset it was a social idealism that instructed government to undertake integrated policies ­― stiff gas taxes and car ownership fees; generously funded public transit; elimination of free curbside parking; provision of safe and abundant bicycle routes ― that enabled Copenhageners to do what they evidently desired all along: to use bikes safely and naturally.

The telltale is in the graphic. Only one in eleven Copenhageners who cycle have environment and climate in mind. The majority do it because it’s faster than other ways to travel, and around a third of cyclists say they ride because it’s healthy, inexpensive and convenient ― belying Shiller’s meme of Danes idealistically choosing bikes despite their inconvenience vis-à-vis cars. [Read more…]

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Last modified: April 15, 2015

Is the rift between Nordhaus and Stern evaporating with rising temperatures?

Lead author of this joint post is Peter Howard, Economic Fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law.

The political task of enacting carbon taxes ­― and maintaining those in place ― has proven so daunting that questions of the tax’s appropriate level have gotten short shrift. Carbon tax advocates do not often discuss: How high is the optimal carbon tax? Along what trajectory should it increase over time? What, if anything, can climate science tell us about the right carbon tax to aim for?

Prof. William D. Nordhaus, Yale University

Prof. William D. Nordhaus, Yale University

In the academic realm, the distinguished Yale economist and public intellectual William Nordhaus has taken a leading role in the discussion. Nordhaus first modeled energy-economy interactions in the 1970s, and since the early 1990s successive versions of his Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy, or DICE model, have been used to estimate costs and benefits of carbon mitigation strategies in one prestigious report after another ― most recently in the Fifth Assessment Report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Given Nordhaus’s concerns over global warming, reflected in his ongoing repudiations of climate change denialists as well as his impatience with cap-and-trade schemes, it has been jarring for some to see him advocate for a relatively low carbon tax. In his 2008 book, A Question of Balance, which relied on the 2007 version of DICE, Nordhaus proposed a year-2005 starting price of just $8 (U.S.) per short ton of CO2 (from his Table 5-4, adjusted to 2012 dollars and recalibrated from metric to short tons and from C to CO2), which would then take two decades to double and another 30 years to double again.

Nicholas Stern (Baron Stern of Brentford)

Nicholas Stern (Baron Stern of Brentford)

In contrast, the Carbon Tax Center and its allies at the Citizens Climate Lobby have long advocated a steeper, stepwise ramp-up, with an initial price of around $10 per ton of CO2 followed by annual increases of the same magnitude for at least a decade and perhaps much longer. This policy recommendation is more in line with the views of Nicholas Stern ― lead author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) ― who argues that strong climate policies are necessary immediately to forestall large future damages from global warming. In the past, Nordhaus (along with several other economists) disregarded these findings based on the low discount rate assumed in the report.

Recently, however, this difference in opinion between the Nordhaus and Stern camps with regards to policy (though not discount rate assumptions) has lessened. Using the latest version of the Nordhaus model, DICE-2013, Nordhaus finds an optimal initial (2015) carbon price of approximately $21 per short ton of CO2 in 2012 U.S. dollars (a near tripling from DICE-2007). Moreover, the optimal tax according to Nordhaus rises more rapidly over time as compared to DICE-2007.[1] A tax of this amount would restrict the average global temperature increase to approximately 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.[2]

As economist-columnist Paul Krugman noted in his review of Nordhaus’s 2013 book, The Climate Casino, in the NY Review of Books, even Nordhaus seems surprised by his finding that both the international consensus of a 2 °C limit and the carbon tax necessary to achieve it are nearly economically rational.[3] And given that DICE-2013 fails to account for climate tipping points (as Nordhaus himself notes), an even lower temperature limit and higher carbon tax are justifiable.

Stern has now taken this recent scholarship a step further. In a June paper co-authored with economist Simon Dietz, Stern demonstrates that the DICE framework can support an even stronger mitigation effort than the latest Nordhaus specification of the model.Their paper, “Endogenous growth, convexity of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions” (co-published by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy as Working Paper No. 180, and by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment as Working Paper No. 159), is not a rehash of the Stern-Nordhaus dispute over discounting. Rather, the paper accepts Nordhaus’s choice of discount rate for argument’s sake but modifies the 2010 edition of Nordhaus’s model in three critical ways. [Read more…]

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Last modified: August 9, 2015

The Thin Reed Supporting the White House’s “Legacy” Climate Plan

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

I took Latin in high school, and I loved unraveling classic phrases like After this, therefore because of this ― a common logical fallacy that attributes event B to event A because A preceded B.

Okay, so that’s not quite what Politico and the New York Times did this week when they linked the sharp drop in power plant emissions in the Northeast U.S. from 2005 to 2012 (“B”) with the regional CO2 trading system known as RGGI (“A”). But they came pretty close:

Politico: Nine Northeastern states already take part in a regional trading network that puts an economic price on their power plants’ carbon output . . . The Northeastern states saw their power plants’ carbon emissions drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012, the trading network told EPA in December — without any of cap-and-trade critics’ apocalyptic expectations for such a system.

The Times: The regional program [RGGI] has proved fairly effective: Between 2005-12, according to program officials, power-plant pollution in the northeastern states it covered dropped 40 percent. [Read more…]

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