People will never vote for a carbon tax, so let’s stop asking

Late last year, Washington state senator Reuven Carlyle predicted that his state’s voters were ready to say yes to a carbon tax. The Trump administration’s efforts to roll back environmental laws, and the mounting toll of climate change on Washington’s forests, salmon, and orcas, would finally convince them, he told MIT Technology Review.

The senator was wrong. The latest returns from the state show that voters rejected the I-1631 ballot measure, which would have created the nation’s first such tax and raised more than $1 billion annually within five years, the Seattle Times reported. It marks the second time in a row Washington voters have said no to a carbon tax.

Which raises an obvious question: If a solidly Democratic state, grappling with rising climate dangers and driven by anti-Trump fervor, still can’t push a carbon tax past the finish line—what are the odds any US state can, much less the country as a whole?

Or more likely, it answers the question. Short of a massive realignment of political power in Washington, it’s simply not going to happen, at least at the federal level. The Democrats may have won back control of the House on November 6, but Republicans increased their dominance in the Senate, and with it the ability to block any ambitious climate agenda.

The added problem is that Democrats themselves don’t have an ambitious climate agenda. It simply wasn’t high on the list of legislative priorities for the party as it battled to regain power and provide a check on Trump’s policies, as the Guardian pointed out.

A growing number of conservatives and even energy companies back a carbon tax, but many of them say it’ll still take years of behind-the-scenes lobbying as well as a tilt in power before such a proposal can have any chance at the national level (see “How the science of persuasion could change the politics of climate change”).

Back at a state level, asking citizens to vote for more taxes is simply always tough, as political scientists have long stressed. Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard professor of government who has conducted ongoing polls of public attitudes on these issues, told me this spring that Americans have long supported outright regulations on greenhouse gases, like emissions caps. Cap-and-trade programs like the ones operating in California and a group of eastern US states, which put the direct onus on businesses rather than consumers, can also poll north of 50%. “But taxes are really unpopular,” Ansolabehere said. “It’s a very hard sell to them.”

Economists will tell you that a carbon tax would be one of the most effective ways of cleaning up the energy system. It would give businesses a financial incentive to cut emissions, rather than forcing them to meet inflexible regulatory mandates.

But if politics is the art of the possible, then political leaders and climate advocates should focus on measures that stand the greatest chance of succeeding. A perfect proposal that never becomes law is exactly zero percent effective.

At a minimum, then, lawmakers should strive to build consensus within the legislature for a carbon tax, rather than hoping for the best at the voting booth. And if they think that adopting a tax will lose them the next election, or undermine support for other climate policies, it may be time to focus efforts on more feasible proposals, like stricter emissions standards, higher tax credits for renewables, and greater research and development funding.

Costa Samaras, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, echoed this point on Twitter this morning, noting that progress will have to come from the things that governments are actually capable of enacting. “It’s sub-optimal but so are most sandwiches and I still eat them,” he said.

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