First Statewide Carbon Tax Is What Our Climate Moment Demands

Climate scientists like me need to be clear about the global danger. Putting a price on CO2 would slow warming more effectively than any other policy tool we have available.


Being on the front lines of climate science research, I have struggled with how to share my fears about climate change publicly. But when I think about the future of my 7-year-old granddaughter, Hazel, I am compelled to speak out, because frankly, I find the climate science predictions terrifying.

One of the things you have to know about scientists is that we’re not always the best educators or public speakers. Most of us joined the field because we like finding out how the world works, hunkering down and doing good science. We research, we publish, and we largely leave it to others to explain what it all means for society—but many of us who work in climate science feel as though we’ve been ringing the alarm bells on global warming for decades with nobody paying attention.

Well, we can’t afford to do that anymore. At this eleventh hour, we need to take bold action to staunch the unchecked flow of carbon emissions that are overheating our planet and rapidly destabilizing the environmental systems on which all life depends for survival.

As the planet has been heating up, massive ice sheets at both polar caps are melting faster, causing sea level rise to accelerate. With roughly a third to a half of the global population living close to sea level, there will be hundreds of millions of climate refugees over the next century and a half. The oceans have been absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted from our burning of coal, oil, and natural gas forming carbonic acid and becoming more acidic.

In Washington, my home state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has warned that “Puget Sound has some of the world’s most corrosive waters … so corrosive that they are eating away at larval oyster shells before they can form.” Animals that have evolved over millions of years are now going extinct at 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate. According to Audubon research, more than half of North America’s bird species are at risk due to climate change. And, because climate change makes weather variations more extreme, we are seeing more frequent and severe wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and flooding across the globe.

Even if we were to somehow, miraculously, halt all of our carbon dioxide emissions this minute, we would still see dramatic climate changes for generations. The effects of climate change will be long-lasting and devastating both to society and the natural world.

So what can be done?

First of all, we must put a price on CO2, which would slow the warming more effectively than any other policy tool we have available. Putting CO2 into the atmosphere is not free, we just have not been paying the real cost.

Washington state has a proposal on the November ballot which would do just that. Initiative 732 puts a stable, predictable, and rising price on carbon, and it uses the money raised to make our state tax system fairer and more progressive. I-732 will ensure that those most impacted will receive the most financial relief. It makes the money polluters pay to lower the state sales tax a full percentage point, which benefits everyone. It lowers some business taxes to keep jobs in the state, and it invests $1 billion over the first six years in direct checks of up to $1,500 annually to 460,000 low-income working families through a 25 percent match of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has already made implementing a carbon tax a national priority. One early adopter, British Columbia, implemented a carbon tax in 2008 and has seen decreases in its greenhouse gas emissions from 5 to 15 percent while its economy has grown at a faster pace that the rest of Canada. This demonstrates why economists say the “holy grail” of climate policy is to put a price on carbon.

The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank, analyzed I-732 and stated that it would “put wind in the sails of Washington’s clean energy economy as nothing else possible,” and called it “the biggest improvement in the progressivity of Washington’s state tax system in 40 years.” The New York Times said it could set an example for other states to follow.

I recently joined more than 50 of my fellow scientists at the University of Washington who signed an open letter endorsing this initiative. James Hansen, one of the most celebrated climate scientists in the world, endorsed I-732, saying it would make the price of fossil fuels more “honest,” by more accurately reflecting their costs to society. Until it is no longer free to dump CO2 into the atmosphere, the climate impacts will continue, with compounding, and long-lasting effects.

The hour is late, and we have an inescapable moral responsibility to leave our children and grandchildren a cleaner, healthier, safer world.


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