Americans vote on climate change today

In response to the Trump administration’s massive rollback of environmental regulations, citizens across the US have put forth ballot initiatives to restrict carbon emissions, stop fracking, and encourage renewable energy development. L. Michael Buchsbaum goes in-depth.

poster stuck to a door with an American flag and an arrow that says VOTE

Americans in the west of the country are backing climate-friendly candidates and new laws (Photo by Tom Arthur, CC BY-SA 2.0)

For many voters, this year’s mid-term election is a way to fight back. With Trump controlling the executive branch and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, state governors races and state legislature contests are some of the few tools progressives have left to advance their own energy agendas. While Democrats possibly could re-gain the House of Representatives, (and some even hope the Senate), voters are also concentrating on local races for state governors and legislatures.

But another powerful way to protect the environment is through state-level ballot initiatives. One of the few actual examples of direct democracy in the US, ballot initiatives are possible in twenty-four states, including most Western ones. Citizens who gather enough petition signatures are able to put new laws and regulations to a vote in general elections, with the winners added to State Constitutions.

Nationwide, 64 citizen-driven initiatives will appear on state ballots this November. In Washington State, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and others, the proposed initiatives are designed to restrict carbon emissions, fracking or encourage renewable energy development — or all three.

In Arizona, Proposition 127, known as the Renewable Energy Standards Initiative, would require utility companies to get half their energy from renewable energy sources by 2030. California billionaire Tom Steyer has contributed over $8 million to the campaign through his political action organization, NextGen Climate Action, which is funding a similar initiative in neighboring Nevada. Question 6, also known as the Renewable Energy Promotion Initiative would also require Nevada utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

In Colorado, Proposition 112 — the Safer Setbacks for Fracking Initiative — promoted and backed by a host of progressive, grassroots environmental groups, would prohibit new oil and gas wells and production facilities within 2,500 feet of schools, houses, playgrounds, parks, drinking water sources and more.

But perhaps the most far-reaching ballot measure this year is in Washington State, which could become the first state to pass a so-called “carbon fee.” Prop 1631 would impose a $15 per metric ton fee on carbon emissions starting in 2020, which would increase by $2 per year until the state’s 2035 carbon reduction goals are met. The state estimates that the levy would generate $2.2 billion in its first five years.

While the initiative’s supporters concede that gasoline prices would rise and citizens would pay about $10 a month, the State would also be directed to invest about 70% of the proceeds into projects that would accelerate the state’s transition from fossil fuels including public transportation, energy efficiency, wind and solar plants. The rest will be used to protect forests and streams and shielding low-income ratepayers from higher electricity bills.

In a recent editorial, the New York Times editorial board threw their support behind the measure, citing the call to action embedded within the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “It is thus encouraging that in this time of torpor and climate denial at the highest levels of the federal government, voters in the state of Washington will soon be given the chance to adopt, by initiative, a carbon pricing plan that would charge polluters like refineries a fee for emitting greenhouse gases.”

The fee, which is termed by economists a Pigovian tax after the British economist Arthur Pigou, would factor in the now unaccounted costs of more frequent and intense hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and other natural disasters linked to climate change. In the words of George Frampton, a senior environmental adviser to Bill Clinton and co-founder of a group that favors carbon taxes, Partnership for Responsible Growth, it’s an overdue stab at “honestly pricing carbon,” which industry has until now been able to hurl into the atmosphere pretty much for free.

Powerful backers including Google’s Bill Gates and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as Gov. Jay Inslee (a Democrat) and many Native American groups. Polling so far suggests a close vote with the heaviest support coming out of the bigger cities of Seattle and Spokane. However, voters across the state remember the vast amounts of smoke from wildfires that clogged skies all summer.

Though in total, according to the Times, the initiative covers about 80% of Washington’s climate-warming emissions, there are some built in exemptions, including allowing the state’s only operating coal-fired power plant, already scheduled to close in 2025, to avoid paying. Boeing, the state’s largest employer will also be exempt, as well as paper companies, and a giant aluminum smelter. However, oil companies will have to pay. And for that reason, they are spending big, pouring at least $31 million into the race.

Supporter Governor Inslee, widely considered a potential presidential candidate for 2020, was deeply impressed by the new IPCC report that warned “unprecedented” action was needed over the next decade. “Given what the oil industry has done — unfettered, unlimited in time or amount — to the one atmosphere we have, it shouldn’t cause a lot of angst or tears to be simply asking them to not treat our atmosphere like a sewer,” he said.

Currently, about 40 governments around the world, including the European Union and California, have put a price on carbon. A yes vote in Washington State would add further momentum, and possibly convince a few in Washington DC that voters are ready for a US-wide carbon market. But its rejection would also be taken as a sign that carbon taxes are still not politically viable domestically.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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