An initiative on the Washington state ballot this fall shows some of the realities of politics. On the surface, the ballot measure is designed to fight climate change by imposing a tax on carbon emissions. What could be wrong with that? It seems to be exactly what any number of environmental and advocacy groups have been calling for. Yet the Washington ballot proposal is opposed by almost all of the groups calling for climate change legislation. Looking at this opposition shows the reality of the politics of climate change.
So why do environmental groups oppose a carbon tax? There appear to be two primary reasons:
First, the tax is revenue neutral. Rather than providing the government with money for new programs, the proposal uses the carbon tax to reduce other taxes and provide tax relief for low income individuals. These opponents appear to be more concerned with getting more money for new programs than in reducing carbon emissions. They want money used for programs ranging from environmental protection to helping "communities of color."
This insistence on using the tax for new programs also shows one of the long term problems of a carbon tax. If a carbon tax is implemented, a reduction in carbon emissions will result in a reduction in tax revenues. This gives the government and those benefiting from government money an incentive to (behind the scenes) promote carbon emissions. Traditional sin taxes (e.g. cigarette taxes) result in the same conflict -- eliminating tobacco use will result in a budget shortfall.
The second reason the ballot initiative is being opposed is a statement by the founder of the initiative. He said that liberals were more concerned with bigger government and race / class politics than simply dealing with climate change. He suggested that the Republican Party might be the better vehicle for carbon reduction.
That's all it took. It conflicts with the accepted narrative that Republicans are evil and took away a supply of, when all is said and done, patronage money which can be used for political allies.
This is an example of "bootlegger and baptist" regulation. Advocating a carbon tax is the "baptist" cause here, while the "bootleggers" are trying to get money for pet programs (or for that matter, the proposed tax cuts). One organization, the state Audubon Society, is brave enough to go against bigger government interests and support this measure as a way to do something about carbon emissions. They are a brave lone voice in what is likely to be a quite hypocritical campaign.