Washingtonians will likely vote on a "revenue-neutral" carbon tax in November, but critics say the initiative doesn't sufficiently treat climate change like a social justice issue. Sydney Brownstone

More than 30 years after scientists started warning policy makers about climate change, some politicians are considering doing something about it, maybe. But in Washington State, where scientists are already witnessing local symptoms of the global shift, it looks like yet another legislative session could pass without elected officials creating a sane set of climate policies. One thing, however, is certain: At least one climate initiative will go to a statewide vote in November, and it's an embattled one that several lefty groups have formally opposed or abandoned.

So how did we get here?

At the beginning of 2015, Governor Jay Inslee wanted to pass the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act. This would have taxed carbon emissions from the state's biggest polluters while gradually capping carbon pollution in the state, cutting 2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions per year over 18 years and bringing in more than $1.3 billion annually in much-needed state revenue. But Inslee was set up for disappointment. Democrats couldn't find the political will to make it happen while Republicans created hysteria about the possibility of paper mills closing or a carbon tax being passed on to consumers at the pump.

So after a failed legislative session, Inslee took a page out of Obama's playbook and turned to his executive powers. Instead of praying for a dysfunctional state legislature to pass a carbon act, Inslee called on the Department of Ecology to come up with its own carbon cap on the state's biggest polluters—the state's own "Clean Air Rule."

Before the Department of Ecology started working on a carbon cap, however, a group of Washington environmentalists started an aggressive initiative campaign of their own. They called themselves Carbon Washington, and their I-732 aimed to institute a carbon pricing plan that was slightly different from Inslee's proposal. Instead of taxing carbon and putting that revenue toward critical gaps in the state budget, I-732 made an offer they thought might entice Republicans: tax carbon, and use that same pollution-tax revenue to cut the state sales tax by a whole percentage point. This carbon tax would be "revenue-neutral," a phrase that sometimes makes Republicans squeal with glee.

But soon after I-732 started gathering momentum, local social-justice groups pointed to a critical question they felt Carbon WA hadn't answered: If low-income communities and communities of color are going to be the ones hardest hit by the effects of climate change—something that scientists have repeatedly pointed out—how would a revenue-neutral carbon tax help them?

It didn't help matters that one of Carbon WA's founders, Yoram Bauman, stumbled on the answer to that question by implying in a New York Times column that these groups were using race and class as political weapons. Not long after Bauman made those comments, a coalition of labor and social-justice groups started organizing under the banner Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. In October of 2015, the Alliance announced they'd try to put their own climate initiative on the ballot, competing with Carbon WA's.

For a minute, it looked like Washington's segregated environmental communities were on a collision course. Then two things happened: The 2016 legislative session started without an initiative plan from the Alliance, and the state's Office of Financial Management looked at Carbon WA's "revenue-neutral" proposal and concluded it wasn't revenue-neutral at all.

By its own calculations, OFM found that Carbon WA's plan would actually cost the state some $900 million. Carbon WA disputes that assessment. (OFM didn't factor in revenue from taxing pollution on exported fuels, for example, along with several other sources, Carbon WA spokesperson Ramez Naam said.)

Carbon WA's I-732 will likely head to the November ballot anyway, with or without a trouble-making alternative (an I-732B) that's now being pondered by Republicans in the state legislature.

Still, Naam said that he's been encouraged by discussions of I-732 or a possible alternative in Olympia. "Here are multiple groups in Olympia, talking on both sides of the aisle, that we really think are inspired by us," he said. And he maintains that Carbon WA is "extremely socially progressive," despite its carbon neutrality. For example, I-732 includes a working families tax rebate to be phased in over time, which would provide up to $1,500 a year to 400,000 low-income Washington families.

In addition, it doesn't look likely that the Alliance will be offering up a ballot initiative to compete with I-732 after all—particularly not with a looming summer deadline for collecting more than 240,000 signatures and no Alliance initiative, or signature collecting, to speak of.

Still, for labor and social-justice groups working on climate policy, more important work may be going on behind the scenes. These groups are studying the climate-related problems of low-income communities of color at a scale they've never done before. And soon, Puget Sound Sage and Got Green? aim to put some of the survey feedback they've received into crafting local policy on affordable housing, food access, and access to light rail.

Jill Mangaliman, the executive director of Got Green?, says they were disappointed by I-732. As for the argument about the urgency of passing something—anything—climate-related right now, Mangaliman asks this: "Why go for a policy that was only halfway there, or doesn't benefit our communities?... Do we want to do a rush job, or do we want to get it right? Now's the time to be having those really hard discussions around equity and justice and get more people involved." recommended