Climate

As a Vote on the Nation's First Carbon Tax Nears, Young Climate Leaders Show Frustration

In an open letter, a group of millennial activists has demanded urgency from established conservation groups to help reduce carbon emissions in Washington State.

As this frenzied campaign season, one largely devoid of any real discussion about climate change, comes to a close, a group of young climate leaders has a message for their elder environmentalists: “You are letting us down.” 

The group, which refers to itself as “the millennials,” has spent the year campaigning for a tax that would put a price on carbon emissions, which is up for vote in Washington State on November 8th. The initiative has been gaining widespread attention from media outlets as the vote draws closer, with the New York Times being the most recent. “The idea of putting a price on carbon is still one of the most straightforward, economy-friendly ways to deal with climate change,” the Times wrote today in an editorial on I-732, the ballot initiative.

Yet many environmental groups in Washington oppose the tax (excluding Audubon Washington, which came out in support of the ballot initiative on July 13). In an open letter to these groups (including local chapters of the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, 350.org, and the League of Conservation Voters), the millennial leaders of Carbon Washington and the Yes On 732 campaign call on them to reconsider their positions.

“You have all spent much of your life’s work talking about a perilous future that is threatened by a rapidly warming climate. We are writing to you as the generation who will inherit that future," the letter reads. "We are the young people you’ve inspired. We’ve heeded the calls to take control of a situation that threatens our lives. We put one of the strongest climate policies in the world on the ballot. But where are you all? The silence is deafening.”

The conflict isn’t over the tax on carbon pollution itself—it’s where the collected revenues end up. If it passes, the carbon tax will raise the price of fossil fuels, starting at $15 per ton of carbon pollution in the first year and gradually increasing to $100 per ton. (That translates to about 15 cents added to each gallon of pump gasoline and about $8 to the average monthly household electric bill in the first year.) To prevent the tax from becoming financially burdensome, consumers and businesses would be reimbursed through a 1 percent decrease in the state sales tax. The revenues would also fund the working families tax rebate to provide $1,500 a year for 460,000 low-income households, and eliminate the business and occupation tax on manufacturing to prevent businesses (and jobs) from fleeing the state to escape the carbon tax.

The general idea behind the tax is that raising the price of fossils fuels (and carbon pollution) will incentivize people and businesses to use less of them—and also urge investments in greener sources of energy, like solar and wind.

Opponents of I-732 argue that this kind of economic mechanism is not forceful enough to create the immediate change needed to fight climate change. Revenues raised by the tax should directly fund green energy businesses and infrastructure, they say, to help the low-income people and communities of color who will feel the brunt of climate change impacts—the primary reason the Washington Conservation Voters, Sierra Club Seattle, and the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club cite in their refusals to endorse I-732. Front and Centered, a statewide coalition of 60 organizations representing communities of color and and people of lower incomes, does not support I-732.

In their letter, the millennial climate leaders also argue for urgency—but from a different angle. For them, cutting the state sales tax (instead of funding new programs) is part of a political compromise required to take action on climate change now. Climate change is traditionally considered the domain of Democrats. But I-732 has rare bipartisan support; the initial proposal came from conservative economist Yoram Bauman, the founder of Climate Washington, who studied a successful carbon tax in British Columbia, which saw its economy grow as carbon emissions declined. A mechanism to fight climate change that also raises taxes is politically untenable, he argues; for a policy to be successful, it has to target carbon emissions directly and ignore other political ends.

“We know there are legitimate concerns that I-732 doesn’t solve all of our many problems. We’ve always viewed I-732 as a catalyst for further change, not an endpoint," the young climate leaders wrote in their letter. "Doing nothing for four more years or more condemns our future to runaway climate change. This is our fight, and we need your help now.”

The full letter can be read below, and to find out more about I-732, you can read our Q&A with Gail Gatton, executive director of Audubon Washington. You can also read more about Audubon Washington’s position in support of the ballot initiative here.

Editor’s Note: A carbon tax is one way to cut carbon pollution. The National Audubon Society supports serious efforts—at the local, state and national level—to cut carbon pollution in time to keep global warming in check to protect birds. 

Young volunteers, many of whom are high schoolers, spread the word about I-732. Photo: CarbonWA

The Open Letter from the Millenial Climate Leaders 

To:
Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club
Jason Barbose, Western Policy Manager, Union of Concerned Scientists
Kenneth Kimmel, President, Union of Concerned Scientists
Denis Hayes, Executive Director Bullitt Foundation; founder Earth Day
KC Golden, Board Chair, 350.org
Bill McKibben, Founder and Senior Advisor, 350.org
Gene Karpinski, President, League of Conservation Voters
Joan Crooks, CEO, Washington Conservation Voters

If climate change is a war, in Washington State the millennials are fighting while the establishment is hiding.

You have all spent much of your life’s work talking about a perilous future that is threatened by a rapidly warming climate. We are writing to you as the generation who will inherit that future. We are the young people you’ve inspired.

Climate change felt like the invincible monster in our nightmares, an inescapable threat. So for us, as young millennials, it was refreshing to hear you speak frankly about our generational plight, that “winning too slowly is the same as losing.” Our situation is so dire, that to fully confront it is itself an act of courage. We’ve looked up to leaders like you because you have no tolerance for helplessness. We watched some of you speak at Power shift conferences, and we attended the Do the Math Tour. In response, we took action. We started our own campus fossil fuel divestment campaigns, and over the past few years we built CarbonWA, a Washington state grassroots organization with over 20 chapters that put forward America’s first carbon tax initiative. You were leaders because you wanted us to become leaders.

Now WE are leaders, and you are letting us down. We’ve all known from the start that divestment, or stopping Keystone XL, or electing the right politician, was never going to be enough. We heard each of you say that we needed to put a price on carbon, and we agreed. Banding together in coffee shops, university classrooms, and our cramped apartments, we launched the nation’s first citizens’ initiative to put a price on carbon – Initiative 732. The campaign is led by millennials along with noteworthy contributions from people of all ages, income levels, ethnicities, and backgrounds, gathering the 10th most signatures for a ballot initiative in Washington State history. We’ve heeded the calls to take control of a situation that threatens our lives. We put one of strongest climate policies in the world on the ballot.

But where are you all? The silence is deafening. If, as some of you say, climate change is a war, then we need to be fighting hard in every battle, not hiding in a foxhole or running from the battlefield. Ignoring the nation’s very first carbon tax ballot initiative or, in some cases, allowing your organizations to campaign against it and spread misinformation is not leadership.

You need to take a serious look at I-732. You will find a group of young and diverse people powering Yes on 732. You will see legislators from both parties supporting I-732. You will see people of color standing up for I-732. You will see that the oil companies we so eagerly demonize are mostly on the sidelines, but that the organizations you lead, work with and advise are actually cutting off our supply lines and stealing our bullets. We know that there are political dynamics at play that no one likes – but you all know that in politics sometimes it comes with the territory.

This crisis belongs to more than just a handful of non-profit gatekeepers to decide what should be politically realistic and what isn’t. Doing nothing for four more years or more condemns our future to runaway climate change. This is our fight, and we need your help now. In a war, inaction is action in favor of the winning side, there is no neutrality. Sitting this fight out gives ammunition to powerful interests aligned against climate action.

Leaders of your stature belong on the field, not the sidelines.

We know there are legitimate concerns that I-732 doesn’t solve all of our many problems. We’ve always viewed I-732 as a catalyst for further change, not an endpoint. You could acknowledge that, as we do, and stand with the hundreds of young people who put their time, energy, and reputations on the line to MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. A generation, the future of the climate movement, is watching you perplexed and disenchanted at the absenteeism, and at times, obstructionism from the environmental establishment you in many ways oversee. But there is time to change course. You could use your platform to call attention to this effort, you could insist to those you advise that infighting within the climate movement is NOT making us better, and you could personally stand with us. You could support us as we have supported you.

We call on you to join us.

From the millennial leaders of Carbon Washington and the Yes On 732 campaign:

Ben Silesky, Kyle Murphy, Megan Conaway, Aaron Tam, Alex Lenferna, Rheanna Johnston, Duncan Clauson, Mariana Garcia, Ben Larson, Dani Ladyka, Carter Case, Max Price, Judy Wu, Alissa Neuman, Allie Bull, Ian Crozier, Morgane Arriola, Sarah Geyer, Lexie Carr, Tyee Williams, Marcello Molinaro, Trevor Partington, Alisha Husain, Remington Purnell, Ali Mollhoff, Abbie Abramovich, Savannah Kinzer, Summer Hanson, Kyle Conyers

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