Tuesday’s election results were mostly positive for climate advocates. The defeats of far-right GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock (IN) and Todd Akin (MO) produced a twin blow to the anti-science Tea Party, while two of Congress’s most ardent carbon tax proponents, Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), won handily. The re-election of President Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, aided by a dramatic last-minute embrace from superstorm Sandy-battered New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, could also augur well for action on climate. So too could wins for a host of progressive state ballot initiatives, most notably California’s Proposition 30, which will generate $6 billion a year in new tax revenues to support public education.
There was this sour note for climate advocates, however: long-time California Congressmember Pete Stark lost his seat to a fellow Democrat, thanks to redistricting that cut off Stark from a majority of his former constituents, as well as the state’s new “top-two” primary system that pitted Stark against a centrist fellow Democrat rather than a GOP opponent. The victor, Eric Swalwell, an Alameda County prosecutor, is 31. Stark is 80, and has represented parts of California’s East Bay region since 1973, making him the dean of California’s Congressional delegation.
Rep. Stark was both an early and consistent leader in promoting a carbon tax in Congress. In April 2007, Stark introduced legislation that would have levied an upstream tax on fossil fuels equivalent to $10/ton of the fuel’s carbon content, rising annually by $10/ton until CO2 emissions had dropped by 80% from 1990 levels. The bill went nowhere, what with the then-majority House Democrats in the thrall of competing cap-and-trade legislation. But as the first submittal of carbon tax legislation to Congress, it helped galvanize carbon tax advocates, particularly at green groups not beholden to cap-and-trade, including the Carbon Tax Center. Last fall, Rep. Stark dusted off his 2007 bill, upped the tax level to $10 per ton of CO2 (a nearly 4-fold increase) and introduced it as the Save Our Climate Act of 2011.
Pete Stark has been outspoken on many fronts in addition to climate. He was a vocal opponent of the War in Iraq and a strong supporter of a single-payer health-care system. Perhaps even more remarkably, in 2007 Rep. Stark publicly declared his disbelief in a Supreme Being, making him the first openly-declared atheist to serve in Congress. The following year, Stark’s courage was honored with the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association.
America will be the poorer for losing Rep. Stark’s independence, critical thinking and passion for justice in Congress. The Carbon Tax Center will miss him for these qualities and his vision to place a steadily rising carbon tax at the center of climate protection. A fitting legacy would be enactment of legislation along the lines of Pete Stark’s Save Our Climate Act.
Addendum, Dec. 5, 2012: A profile of Eric Swalwell posted today in the New Republic touches on the missteps that made Rep. Stark politically vulnerable and contributed to his defeat.