Washington State’s Carbon Tax – The Right Bill at the Wrong Time

February 15, 2008

Dear Washington State Congress,

I am a progressive democrat, and one of your biggest fans. I vote in every election. I even read my voter’s pamphlet cover to cover. On top of all that, I’m also an enthusiastic environmentalist. I think about my carbon footprint, and I’ve made big changes in my daily habits to cut down on my own pollution.

When I first heard that a carbon tax bill was introduced in the House, I was ecstatic. I think the idea of a carbon tax is great! Pollution hurts our environment and our society, and it’s about time that those costs were taken into account. I especially like the idea of using that money to undo the harm carbon-output has had on our planet. But after thoroughly reading through HR 2420, my excitement has dissolved into worry.

You see, I enjoy all the diverse outdoor activities for which our northwest is famous. Snowboarding Mt. Baker, rock climbing in North Bend, and camping in the Olympics are just a few of the activities I enjoy on the weekends. My mid-sized SUV allows me to safely drive through snowy mountain passes, carry my whitewater raft to a boat launch, or haul my camping gear into the backcountry for some time away from the city. When I bought my car, I chose an SUV because it allowed me to pursue my passions.

For me, this carbon tax is an ultimatum. “If you want to enjoy your active lifestyle, you’re going to have to pay a lot for it!” When did my love for rock climbing and snowboarding the northwest become part of the problem?

I want to drive a car with efficient gas mileage. But today, an SUV that gets 30mpg can cost two to three times as much as a standard gas powered model. I simply can’t afford one. Trading in for a smaller car isn’t a good answer either. My passions would have to be sacrificed for a Honda Civic that cannot handle icy conditions or rough terrain.

Before our state institutes a heavy-handed cost, consumers need to have a chance to reasonably change their habits. Give us an opportunity to buy an efficient car and we will! Give us public transit that works efficiently, and we’ll use it! Help us be able to afford to live environmentally-friendly, and we’ll do it! Energy habits will happily be changed in our state if there is a positive incentive to do so. 

A carbon-tax is the right step, but it shouldn’t be the first step.  There are many middle-class environmentalists (like me!) that want to help our planet. But backing your supporters into a corner without a lifeline isn’t the answer. Don’t pass a carbon tax until we’ve had a chance to truly afford an alternative.

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3 Responses to “Washington State’s Carbon Tax – The Right Bill at the Wrong Time”

  1. Jeff said

    Nicholas,

    Your argument is very much in line with North American liberal/environmentalist logic. The Sierra Club now promotes nuclear power, the most poisonous form of energy known. And it is not carbon free. It must be mined, refined and moved around leaving a trail of cancer wherever it goes.

    I too enjoy all of the possibilities that burning fossil fuels afford (air travel, auto travel, general consumption). However, paying my way out via a new Prius, carbon credits and CFLs is an illusion. The purpose of a carbon tax is to reduce our’lifestyles’ by encouraging us through pain to our pocket book to consume less which reduces our carbon footprint.

    You cannot consciously have a low footprint if you are doing all of these activities. It just does not compute. We Americans still consume 50% more energy than does a European, yet they on average have equal or higher quality of life than we do.

    Recently on the Oil Drum http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3610, Rob Rapier makes the simple case that we cannot stop climate change due primarily to the argument you make.

    Ironically, Washington State has a measure to encourage consumption of renewable energy by providing a subsidy to consumers and producers. This is commonly known as SB 5101/5111.

    Unfortunately, this subsidy for the consumer is voluntary and naturally utilities throughout the state shaft the person producing carbon free power by not participating. So in effect, the state has programs, yet it does not really support the end goal with anything that has teeth. These are known as paper laws.

    We see from the years and years of debate over monorail, light rail, commuter rail, whatever, that we citizens of Washington cannot discipline ourselves with the necessary ‘costs’ to reduce climate change or fossil fuel consumption. We, as you have articulated, are too concerned with our lifestyles. If you are indeed in your twenties, you are a historical witness to the twin ravages of exponential fossil fuel usage: Peak Oil and Climate Change. One is an in tank problem (depletion) the other is an out of the tail pipe problem (emissions). Both are ravaging us. Blame big oil, blame Republicans, blame whoever, but we all have our ‘lifestyles’ which tend to be blameless.

    In the end, a carbon tax will never fly due to our selfishness and knowledge of what ‘lifestyle’ buys us at $.99, $1.99, $2.99, and so on, per gallon.

    If the state gets battered yet again next Winter by the same ferocity of storms that have hit in the past two years, maybe people will recognize there is a problem. As Mr. Rapier notes, we cannot change; we cannot sacrifice our lifestyles.

    Regards,
    Jeff

  2. Nicholas said

    You make a good point; in that for a law to truly inspire change, it needs to have “teeth”. However, a law also needs to offer choices to “not be bitten”.

    The SB 5101/5111 energy bill you brought up is a great example. Today, anyone can install solar panels on their home. There’s even a tax incentive to do so! We have an alternative, now let’s add some teeth. Let’s raise rates for oil used to power homes, then raise it again! Anyone who hasn’t chosen the alternative deserves to be “bit”.

    This carbon-tax bill has the bite without the alternative. The worst part about it, is that the alternatives already exist – they just aren’t accessible. If there’s going to be a carbon tax, let’s raise fuel efficiency standards as well. Take inefficient cars off the market and replace them with high MPG models.

    It’s unrealistic to expect people to give up their entire lifestyle. Personally, I’ll grumble about paying more for gas, but I won’t be giving up my passions anytime soon. If the goal of the gas tax is lower my carbon output, then that goal will be missed. We need to balance our priorities. Lifestyles and our planet are both important.

  3. […] 25, 2008 It looks like British Columbia is a few steps ahead of Washington State’s push toward a carbon tax.  BC’s Finance Minister, Carole Taylor, introduced an escalating carbon-tax just a few days […]

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