Last week, I unwittingly got into a discussion with the folks from carbontax.org about BC’s new carbon tax. Most of the comments showed strong support for a carbon tax, but I was surprised that there was little support for encouraging fuel efficiencies. The collective mind seemed to think that a carbon tax was the only tool needed to curb carbon emissions. Now I doubt that specific mindset is a good representation of what most people believe, but it got me thinking. I agree a carbon tax is a great strategy, but is it the only one? Where does a carbon-tax fall short? Does encouraging fuel efficiency pick up the loose ends?

Pitfalls of a Carbon Tax

  • A carbon tax’s goal is to lower the miles people drive. But what about those who can’t reduce? Commercial truck drivers are one group of carbon-emitters that won’t be changing their habits because of a carbon tax. For transport companies, driving less means less business. Transport services may become a bit more expensive, and truck drivers may not see a pay raise for a while, but carbon emissions won’t drop substantially.
  • For any substantial change to happen, consumers need to notice consequences. However, most carbon taxes are modeled the same: taxes start off very small, and are slowly increased over time. By slowly, I mean about 10 cents a gallon slowly. Politicians are wary of pegging the tax too high, but adding an extra 10 cents a gallon tax is almost unnoticeable at today’s volatile gas pumps. For many, paying a bit extra at the pump is more convenient than changing their habits to be more environmentally friendly. It’ll take years before the tax is expensive enough to force a change in the average consumer. Even then, there will always be people rich enough and willing to pay to pollute. A carbon tax is a great long-term strategy, but doesn’t offer any short-term solutions.
  • Marijuana UseA carbon tax is one sided, as there are two basic ways to change someone’s habits. One way is through negative consequences, the other through positive incentives. Training animals (stern voice vs tasty treat) is one basic example. When it comes to carbon emissions, a carbon tax is a negative consequence. But negative consequences aren’t always enough to cause change. Take a look at marijuana use. Marijuana has been illegal in the US for decades…but the drug’s use hasn’t slowed. A balance of negative consequences and positive incentives is the most effective means of changing habits.

The Benefits of Fuel Efficiency

If a carbon tax is peanut butter, fuel efficiency is the jelly. The two strategies combined provide a balanced plan toward decreasing carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

  • Promoting fuel efficiency is the perfect short-term plan because it’s available now! The technology needed to reduce carbon outputs is already sitting on car lots. Burning carbon fuels more efficiently has the same effect as driving less. Right now, the big obstacle is getting fuel efficient vehicles into the hands of drivers. Once that problem is tackled, fuel efficiency could reduce carbon emissions in a very little amount of time.
  • mazda.jpgDollar for dollar, fuel efficiency has a bigger effect on consumers. BC’s carbon tax will cost a family about $50 a year. Driving a fuel efficient car could save that in a month or less. My personal situation: If I were to drive the hybrid version of my current auto, I’d save $50 in two weeks. That’s $2600 annually! When it comes to carbon, promoting fuel efficiency is more powerful simply because of the dollar amount attached. Additionally, fuel efficiency provides a positive incentive for emitters to change their habits. Wouldn’t you drive a hybrid if it meant saving hundreds every year?
  • Fuel efficiency can reach people that a carbon tax can’t. Truck drivers and commuters who can’t bike or bus can still lower their carbon emissions with better fuel efficient cars. The same can be said for people who travel in distances more than what is covered by a carbon-tax. Fuel efficiency works no matter where the fuel is bought and burned.

The bottom line is that both a carbon-tax and fuel efficiency incentives are working toward the same goal. The planet doesn’t care how carbon emissions are lowered, so long as it’s done quickly. Why limit our options? The best strategy is one that uses everything in our toolbox; be it a carbon-tax or promoting fuel efficiency.

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 ago.  Starting on July 1st, the tax will add an extra 2.4 cents for every purchased liter of gasoline (that’s about 9 cents a gallon).  The tax rate will escalate annual until 2012, when the tax will stop at 7.2 cents / liter (about 28 cents a gallon). 

Compared to the carbon-tax proposed in Washington State, the rates are relatively the same.  So what makes this tax so much better?  

First off, BC’s carbon tax bill isn’t all bite, and isn’t completely insensitive toward consumers.  “We want to bring in the benefits first,” said Taylor. “We made a policy decision that it was an important part of this carbon tax that individuals were protected as we start out on this journey.”  The benefits will be coming by way of a one time $100 check in the mail.  The cash will (hopefully) help individuals adjust to a lower carbon producing lifestyle.   

Secondly, the tax has managed to by step an important criticism.  A gas tax is often seen as regressive, by placing an ever-growing burden on the lower and middle class.  The BC carbon-tax is different.  The money made from the tax will be funneled right back to consumers by means of lower income taxes.  Some qualifying families will also receive $100 annual offsets throughout the program.  This system makes the tax “revenue-neutral”, so even the government isn’t profiting. 

Despite all this, BC’s carbon-tax bill misses an important objective.  It’s great to see that the government wants “to bring in the benefits first”.  But a one time check isn’t the type of benefits that will advance an environmentally-friendly lifestyle.  Wouldn’t it be better to send out “convert your car to bio-fuel” coupons instead of $100?  Or use the money to build decent commuter bike lanes?

Even more importantly, the bill doesn’t really stimulate a change in behaviors.  At the end of the year, the costs for BC consumers balance out.  Without added costs and without any extra incentive to change, why would anyone change their habits at all?   

Regardless of its downfalls, this bill is a huge political success.  Historically, many politicians are hesitant to support a carbon-tax for fear it may be career damaging.  BC’s new tax is proof otherwise.  United States – it’s time to catch up!

Political experience is a hot topic for presidential candidates Clinton and Obama.  I was planning on writing an article detailing each’s experience in the Senate, but Grassroots Mom beat me to it.  Her analysis shows a great in-depth look at the various bills each candidate has authored or sponsored during their Senate tenure.   Read it and you will become informed.

 The Highlights:

  • Voting records show that both candidates support similar issues.  Obama is frequently a co-sponsor on Clinton’s bills, and vice versa. 
  • Although each candidate shares similarities, they’re method to create change is different.  In the instance of lead paint for example, Clinton suppored legislation that would provide tax incentives to companies who removed lead paint.  Obama supported classifying lead paint as “hazardous” and regulating its use.  Market incentives vs Regulation.
  • Clinton has introduced a hefty amount of healthcare legislation.  Her focus is mainly on women and children.
  • Obama’s legislation is more broad.  Healthcare, energy, global warming, nuclear proliferation, foreign policy (ie Iran), and Blackwater are all subjects of bills he brought forth.
  • An interesting point: many of Clinton’s bills have no co-sponsors.  Speculation as to why this is can lead to any number of conclusions.

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.

What a day for a caucus!

Over the last few days, visits from the major candidates and headline news coverage encouraged even the most apathetic of us to think about participating in the caucus. The excitement only grew Saturday morning. Flurries of phone calls, text messages, and emails from politically savvy friends all sent the same message: GO TO YOUR CAUCUS AND VOTE!

The middle school where my precinct caucus took place was at capacity before 1pm. Even arriving 30 minutes early didn’t help avoid the line to get through the door. It was an eclectic group of people to say the least, but it seemed as though everyone was excited to be doing something to improve our country.

At the caucus, Obama political swag decorated the windows and hallways. Many caucus goers were decked out in stickers, buttons, and “I have a crush on Obama” t-shirts. Surprisingly, Hillary signs were no where to be found.

An initial precinct vote mirrored the disproportionate display of posters on the wall. 4 Barak Obama delegates, 1 Hillary Clinton, and 1 undecided.

Following the vote, citizens had a chance to speak for the candidate. The first caucus goer to speak up was a Obama supporter named Phil. He first introduced himself as an avid listener of Right Wing radio, explaining that “one has to know your enemy if you’re going to defeat them”. Phil supported Obama because of his electability. In fact, most of the caucusers supported their candidate based on electability. Hillary supporters felt that Obama’s limited experience would be an easy target for Republicans. Obama supporters felt just as strongly the other way.

A few political issues did come up in discussion. Global warming, Supreme court justice choices, and healthcare were all spoken about as important issues. However, our precinct’s knowledge on policy was meshed together from various CNN and Seattle Times headlines. We were an eager group, but not the most informed.

The undecided voters were not really undecided, but were (surprisingly) strong fans of Dennis Kucinich. Following a few hushed whispers in their direction that Kucinich had dropped his candidacy, the undecided were persuaded to join with Obama; leaving the delegates at 5 to 1.

For a politico and activist, attending a caucus can be emotionally conflicting. On one hand, democracy can be a frightening process. Our delegates were selected based on a few news headlines. It makes one realize slogan writers and marketers have quite a bit of influence. On the other hand, the entire experience can be inspiring. Witnessing voters line the block to participate in a caucus will make every rainy day spent registering voters seem worth all the effort.

The most amazing part of the caucus, however; is how it reflects the value that everyone’s voice counts. Our delegates weren’t selected in a dark, smoked filled room. It was inside hallways of old middle schools and churches that Washington state helped select our next President.

*The AP is reporting that Obama swept caucuses across the state. Initial numbers indicate he’s winning 65% of the delegates to Clinton’s 33%.

** Update ** The Washington State Democrat’s website is reporting Obama at 67.5% and Clinton at 31%. The delegate split is 21,629 and 9992 respectively.

A quick follow-up on my last post….

Seattle’s local NPR station ran a story a few days ago on Northwest farmers.  The rising prices of corn and wheat are beginning to have an effect on which crops farmers are choosing to plant this year.  Seed distributers are running out of corn and wheat seeds, but seem to have plenty of other crops available.  The problem? Farmers are following the money.  Land that once grew beans, alfalfa, potatoes, and bluegrass for golfcourses has been moved over to provide wheat and corn.

Enter: developing agricultural countires.  With such a large hole forming on the supply side of these crops, agricultural industries throughout the world have an opportunity to be competitive.  If ever there was a time to get a toe-hold into US markets, now is the time!

There’s an article from the Economist titled “The End of Cheap Food” which has been floating around my office for a while now. Earlier this week, the article made the front page of Digg. This news isn’t suprising – the article follows up months of gossip regarding the rising costs of food in general. I still remember last summer when Nabisco and Hershey both forecasted rising costs for chocolate.

The price hikes we’re seeing (and will continue to see) boil down to a change in demands. China and India are becoming richer – and with it comes a taste for the finer things in life. Larger portions of meat and grains for a lot of people are increasing demands for food. Additionally, the US is demanding more and more ethanol-based fuel to help with its energy demands. The Economist reported that a third of the corn grown in the US last year went to bio-fuel production.

With food prices rising, it sure is a great time to be a farmer – as long as you’re in the US or Europe that is. Farmers living in these regions are reaping the benefits of higher-than-ever food costs, while still profiting from large government subsidies.

US and European subsidies and tariffs have crippled agricultural economies throughout the world. Subsidies distort the world price of food to the point that many of the world’s farming nations can’t afford to sell their products on the global market. In many cases, it has become cheaper for agricultural nations to import food rather than grow their own. Ultimately, this makes entire nations completely vulnerable to market changes. Even a slight change in global prices can mean the difference between food and famine.

The article insists that if ever there were a time for the US and Europe to eliminate their farm subsidies that now is the time. While they may be correct, this outcome is unlikely to happen. US and European farmers are riding a wave of profits that hasn’t been seen in a long, long time. Farmers and lobbyists have fought long and hard to get these subsidies into place. In the US, a politician voicing any opposition to farm subsidies will likely be unemployed by the next election cycle. It is unrealistic to believe that these farmers/political constituents will readily give up subsidies that kept their industry afloat for so long.

Fortunately, not all hope is lost for developing nations. The US’s increased biofuel demand will doubtlessly lead to a global price increase on corn and wheat while simultaneously persuading US farmers to sell their product domestically. Developing nations who grow corn and wheat may begin to see opportunities to sell their products in international markets that were formally occupied by US farmers.

Countries should also look to the future to find market advantages. As more farmers begin planting corn and wheat, the supply of other crops will began to dry up. A developing country that fills in the gaps left by US farmers will find themselves at a huge advantage over the next 2 to 3 years. Besides making a lot of money, these governments could use their market power to put pressure against US and European tariffs.

On February 5th, 24 states will hold primaries for the 2008 presidential election. Following Super Tuesday, Washington State voters will have a chance to cast their votes. The race is predicted to be close – and Washington may become a pivotal state in determining our next President. However, making your vote count in Washington can be confusing. Our state has a unique system where a caucus vote takes place on Feb. 9th, and a general primary vote takes place on Feb. 19th. This quick guide will help shed some light on our system, and help ensure your vote truly counts.

Why should I go to a caucus?

A caucus is a general meeting where people vote their support for candidates. In the Washington Democratic Party, the votes cast in caucus meetings determine how delegates will vote at the state convention. According to State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz, all of our state’s delegates are determined by caucus votes. A caucus usually consists of discussions about the candidates, and ends with a vote.

To participate in a caucus, you must go to the precinct for which you are registered. If you are not registered where you currently live (e.g. most college students), you will have to change your address. This can be done on-site at the caucus. The precinct caucus will take place on Saturday, Feb. 9th, at 1:00 pm. Remember to know your precinct number before arriving for the caucus!
Why should I vote in the primary?

A primary is a general vote in which any voter may participate. In most states, primaries are held to determine how a state’s delegates will vote for the presidential nominee. Washington is a different story. Because our delegates are allocated by our caucus system, the primary has no direct effect on how delegates will vote. However, primary results can still influence undecided delegates and help gain media exposure for candidates.

Washington State’s primary takes place on Tuesday, February 19th.

For more information:

  • For phone help, call the legislative hotline at (206) 583-4345