Action 154. Put a price on it!

There’s widespread agreement among folks who want to try to solve our emissions and climate crisis that carbon pricing is a key component of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a pretty simple concept, based on the recognition that if industry can use our atmosphere as an open sewer, and not have to pay for it, what’s the incentive to stop doing so? Carbon pricing is a way to monetize the real costs of emissions, by recognizing that emitting greenhouse gases have real and profoundly negative consequences for public health and the environment, and that a) somebody needs to pay for these currently externalized, unaccounted-for costs and b) by insisting on that, an economic incentive is put in place to change that behavior and reduce emissions.

But of course, its not that simple (is it ever?). There are still only a handful of pricing strategies that have been implemented long enough for us to look at their effectiveness and learn from- British Columbia’s carbon tax and California’s Cap and Trade program being two primary examples. There are some real failures, such as the deeply flawed attempt by the EU to institute carbon caps that mis-priced carbon and gave far too much away to industry from the get-go. There’s lots of legitimate disagreement over the mechanisms and pricing strategies by which carbon pricing should occur. There’s LOTS of disagreement over where moneys raised by carbon pricing should go- does it go back to the public? Is it reinvested in clean energy infrastructure, or green jobs? Does it go back into government coffers? And of course, there is lots of disagreement and pushbacks from both conservative politicians who don’t see climate change as a priority and for whom the word tax is a red line; and from energy-intensive industries who understandably balk at the prospect of prices going up.

All this disagreement was readily on display at the WA state environment committee hearing in Olympia  I attended a few weeks ago. HB 1646 is a bill that rose from the ashes of last year’s failed carbon tax public initiative, this time with a stronger emphasis on reinvesting proceeds from the tax into green jobs, energy infrastructure, and social justice for communities most heavily impacted by emissions. Personally, I was a huge supporter of Initiative 731 as I found its pricing and revenue-neutral framework far more transparent and straightfoward, and less prone to pork-barrelling, than the approach this bill is taking. But at this point, I think our priority has to be to get carbon pricing started, and since it is not likely to come from the federal level, the states have to lead. So I am willing to support any decent proposal for carbon pricing, and this one is still pretty good.

I took myself down to Olympia to watch 3 hours of the hearing and submit my written testimony on the bill, which you can read here if you are so inclined: HB 1646 testimony_DRudnick . There was excellent testimony from several citizen’s groups as well as stakeholders including medical organizations and outdoor sports businesses, who clearly recognize the risks to their communities from climate change. Unfortunately, there were also several industry lobbyists there to cry foul on any sort of pricing scheme. A few things were particularly saddening to me about their testimony. Many of them prefaced their comments with an acknowledgement of how important climate change is as an issue, and how we need to do something about it– but then went on to explain how it couldn’t be them, because they couldn’t possibly afford it. This was a frustrating argument to hear in particular from members of the agricultural community arguing against this bill. It is phenomenal to think that an industry that is facing absolutely enormous risks from climate change– shifting entire plant growth zones and massive hydrologic disruptions, to name a few– is unable to see past short-term profits for what this means for their industry as a whole. It is unfathomable to me how we can continue to be so short-sighted and unaware of the significance and reach of the risks we take by not taking steps to significantly and permanently reduce our emissions.

The reality is, this bill is unlikely to go anywhere in this session, and that is painful to see. But the other reality is that even just a few years ago, a bill like this probably would not have even gotten a hearing in Olympia. So, the times they are a’changing with respect to acknowledging the importance of this issue. The question remains, however, are they changing fast enough?


4 thoughts on “Action 154. Put a price on it!

  1. John F. Williams

    “Are we making progress fast enough?” is indeed a very important question, and one that ought to be more than rhetorical. It has been touched on by a few organizations, e.g. Puget Sound Partnership, but there’s not really a clear framework for even constructing an answer. That area needs some serious work.
    At the risk of seeming “too far out there” I’d like to say that I think that taking responsibility for externalities is also a broad front on which we need to be working, not just with CO2. And IMHO the way to deal with these externalities is to make them no longer external, i.e. broaden our cultural view to be an ecosystem perspective rather than one dominated by Aristotelian classifications that put things into silos. True, this is a long-term approach, but without it, all of our short-term actions will continue to be disjoint policies for industrial pollution, recycling, sewage treatment, water extraction/diversion, farming, timber harvest, etc.
    That’s not to say that short-term approaches aren’t important, but they need to go hand-in-hand with long term ones.

      1. John F. Williams

        Not to belabor the point, but yesterday a new web site for visualizing government data appeared on the scene. To quote Wired magazine: “Called USAFacts, it’s an ambitious, $10 million effort to present government data in a way that’s open, non-partisan, and stupidly easy to understand.” Created by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Seattle design studio Artefact, the site is organized according to 4 basic categories: “Establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility”, “Provide for the common defense”, “Promote the general welfare”, and “Secure the blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our posterity.” Wired again: “Ballmer’s team spent two years combing through government websites, manually pulling data from PDFs, spreadsheets, websites, and reports, and entering them into hundreds of Excel spreadsheets and data tables. Artefact’s designers took that mountain of raw information and translated it into a series of infographics that help make the slog of data not just accessible, but comprehensible.”

        I took a look at this site, still in Beta, and tried to see what it could tell me about Environmental Protection. I did find a bunch of data about expenditures, though not the level of detail I expected. But nowhere in the Environmental Protection section, nor in the top level section with the 4 basic categories was there any mention of quantifying the goals or measuring progress against goalposts. Of course, I can’t blame the government for USAFacts’ interpretation of data, but I think it is just one more example of how we are culturally programmed to head fast and furiously, guns blazing, without any clear analysis of where we need to get.

      2. John Williams

        Another partial answer to the question: “Are we making progress fast enough?”
        “The rate at which we as a community are continuing to damage Puget Sound is greater than the rate at which we are fixing it.”
        — Sheida R. Sahandy Executive Director, Puget Sound Partnership, from flyer about 2015 State of the Sound report.

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