Politics above principle: environmentalists against a carbon tax

Lost in the much bigger election day surprise was news that a Washington state referendum to adopt a carbon tax, which would have been the first in the nation, was defeated. Although that result may not be surprising, the primary opposition to it was–environmental organizations.

The Washington Post called this “weird” and Slate published a refreshing article sharply criticizing the environmental opposition. So why were they so opposed to a proposal that would have addressed one of their primary concerns?

Washington’s referendum was designed to be nonpartisan. It was pushed by an economist/stand-up comedian and its aim was to unite everyone on both the left and the right concerned about climate change. To do that, it proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax, used to offset the costs of the tax for low income residents and to reduce other taxes.

One of the refreshing developments over the last few years, is that there is growing interest among conservatives and libertarians, especially younger ones, in climate change and ways to address it without unnecessarily reducing economic growth or restricting liberty. Of course, there continues to be uncertainty about the magnitude of long-term climate change and its impacts. Libertarians and conservatives who believe that climate change is happening and should be addressed are often nonetheless skeptical of the doomsday scenarios often painted about it.

The Washington proposal was intended to tap into that. As the Washington Post explains:

A revenue neutral carbon tax is also designed to appeal to political conservatives by deliberately not increasing the size of government. It wasn’t realized, perhaps until the Washington State battle, that such a move could win the center but also lose the left.

And that’s precisely what happened. Environmental groups opposed the measure because, by being revenue neutral, it wouldn’t increase the size of government. Apparently, many “environmentalists” were only willing to consider solutions that would give the state a big pot of money to divvy up amongst their favorite cronies (subsidy-dependent renewable energy companies) and to spend on a whole host of unrelated progressive policy goals.

When facing the choice between principle (doing something about climate change) or politics (getting money for unrelated left causes), many groups chose the latter. That’s disappointing. The growing interest in climate change among young conservatives and libertarians offered a glimmer of hope for meaningful reform. Think, for instance, about how the gay rights movement took off once it won over the support of young people, regardless of political ideology. But, if the mainstream environmental movement won’t support climate change policies that accommodate those of us concerned by the size and power of government, hope for similar progress on this issue will be difficult to maintain.

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