Washington’s carbon fee defeat is an invitation to think bigger

Washington’s carbon fee defeat is an invitation to think bigger
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On Tuesday, Washington state voters had a chance to take action against global warming, becoming the first to adopt a fee on climate-altering carbon pollution at the ballot box.

They didn’t. Initiative I-1631 was defeated, 56 to 44 percent. It was the second straight election in which Washington voters rejected a plan to put a price on carbon pollution. As in 2016, fossil fuel interests broke the bank on campaign spending, with a record $31 million flowing into the campaign against I-1631.


But to blame fossil fuel industry spending for the initiative’s defeat is to miss the point.

Big Oil and its political influence isn’t going anywhere. At the end of the day, the oil industry and its allies presented Washington voters with a simple proposition: Vote for I-1631 and your energy bills will go up.

For a significant number of Washington voters, that was enough to make them say, “thanks, but no thanks,” to the carbon fee — despite the rising urgency of addressing global warming.

The rejection of I-1631 came just weeks after the world’s scientists warned that without dramatic action to curb fossil fuel use, we are likely to trigger catastrophic and irreversible changes to our climate. Increasingly, we can see the effects of climate change in our daily lives — from record wildfires to hurricanes Harvey and Michael. If we don’t act starting now, those extreme weather events will only become more destructive.

So what are we going to do?

The first step is to see things clearly and without illusion. A solid majority of Americans now believe that climate change is real, is happening now, and is caused by humans. A similar share of Americans believes that the nation should act to address climate change.

Yet, for most of us, global warming remains a back-burner issue. And when it comes to specific actions to address climate change, consensus often breaks down. That is especially true, as in Washington, when the upfront price tag is tangible and real in our daily lives, and the long-term costs, while much more substantial, are difficult to fathom.

If we are to meet the challenge posed by climate change to our families, our communities, and our world, that has to change. Those of us who advocate for climate action need to have an honest conversation with the American people that acknowledges both the urgency of acting now, and the vast scale of the changes we will need to make as a society.

Forget about spending a few extra bucks on our utility bills; Americans need to get used to the idea of shifting our entire economy — every last bit of it — off of fossil fuels, and doing it within a little more than a generation. We will need to envision new ways of living together and doing business. We may have to learn to do without some things we’ve become accustomed to.

But acknowledging the scale and scope of the transition in front of us also provides an opportunity to talk about the promise it brings. Imagine a world without diesel fumes, or oil spills, or having to worry about what some despot in an oil-rich country might do next. Imagine getting rid of the energy-intensive things in our lives that don’t make us happy (your morning commute, perhaps)? Or imagine what life might be like if we expended less effort acquiring stuff and spent more time together, or otherwise reclaimed the joyful things in life that don’t require burning fossil fuels.

I-1631 didn’t fail just because of Big Oil, and it didn’t fail because it was an imperfect policy.

It failed because Washingtonians, and most of the rest of us in the United States and around the world, haven’t been quite ready to link arms and jump together into a post-fossil fuel era.

Only by acting together will we muster the collective courage and vision to make that leap, and reap the benefits that lie on the other side. And only by framing the challenge appropriately — as not just a civilization-level challenge but also a civilization-transforming opportunity — are we likely to do what it takes to get to the destination.

Tony Dutzik, a senior analyst for environmental advocacy think tank Frontier Group.