Washington State Governor Jay Inslee is expected to propose major legislation to combat climate change soon. But it wont be as successful as it needs to be unless it also addresses income inequality.
  • Office of Governor Jay Inslee
  • Washington State governor Jay Inslee is expected to propose major legislation to combat climate change soon. Remy Trupin and De'Sean Quinn argue it won't be as successful as it needs to be unless it also addresses income inequality.

In the near future, Governor Jay Inslee will propose major legislation to combat global warming at the state level. His action recognizes that climate change is one of the two biggest threats to Washington State’s ability to deliver on the promise of a better future for our kids and grandkids, the other being growing economic inequality.

In fact, the two are inextricably linked. How we address global warming will have a major impact on the economic well-being of generations to come. At the same time, whatever promises we want to make to our kids run through the intersection of climate change and income inequality. This means the fight to address climate change and income inequality simultaneously is as fundamental as our fights for world-class public education and quality jobs.

Twenty-five years ago, sitting in the back row of our Garfield High School chemistry class, no one would have accused the two of us of being tree huggers. We came to our work on climate change through our shared interest in racial and economic justice. We are children of the civil rights movement. Watching our classmates, friends, and families have opportunities cut off drove our work. We have dedicated our time, efforts, and reputations to protecting communities of color and low-income residents.

As fairly new fathers, one of our greatest joys is passing on to our kids the experiences we have had: the lakes we swam in, the ridges we hiked on, and the wild salmon we ate. We see the promise of tomorrow through the eyes of the next generation. We did not know in our lifetime we would be faced with the reality that we are using our natural resources at a rate 50 percent faster than they are replaced.

Beyond preserving our natural bounty for our children, we want to ensure their economic security. The consequences of climate change will dramatically affect both. Certainly our response to global warming will determine the quality and availability of our natural resources, but how people are protected from and adapt to climate change will also have a major impact on economic opportunity and equality.

This is because the profound effects of climate change are not going to be absorbed equally. Higher-income Washingtonians are better able to mitigate or adapt to the impact of a changing climate than those with lower incomes. For example, families with higher incomes can more easily afford the costs of resettling if communities are displaced due to rising sea levels. They are also better equipped than low-income households to absorb the costs of rising food and energy prices, and better able to afford the advanced technologies that reduce energy bills, such as solar panels and electric cars.

Carbon emissions are already having a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, communities of color, and rural communities. Our neighbors in these communities are more likely to live in areas with lower air and water quality, and in homes where flooding, fires, and other natural disasters are becoming more common.

Further, climate change policies that do not address rising income inequality are less likely to achieve sufficient reductions in carbon emissions. That’s because raising the cost of carbon emissions, the key to reducing them, will also have consequences that are uneven across the economic spectrum. Washingtonians with lower incomes simply cannot afford to reduce their reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources. Without help, it will be especially difficult for people with fewer social and economic resources to make the expensive investments in low-carbon technologies that are necessary to make a state-level climate program a success.

Nonetheless, all Washingtonians—especially those with lower incomes and people of color—are essential partners in the movement to address climate change. Nearly one-third of Washingtonians—2 million people—get by on incomes of less than $23,340 for an individual or $39,850 for a family of three. A disproportionate and growing share of them are people of color.

Lawmakers can implement numerous policies that both combat global warming and improve the economic fortunes of all Washingtonians.

First, higher energy costs must be offset through direct cash rebates to families, for example through Washington State’s Working Families Tax Rebate. Using a significant portion of carbon revenues to fund these rebates to people with lower-to-moderate incomes would be a simple, cost-effective way to help all Washingtonians transition to a low-carbon economy. Because every household is situated differently, policies that allow families to be flexible in how they adapt to higher energy prices are crucial. Direct cash rebates would allow families to adjust their spending in ways that best suit their individual circumstances.

Second, targeted improvements to our transportation system and other steps to improve energy efficiency are essential. To help reduce carbon emissions quickly and efficiently, policymakers must invest a sizable portion of carbon revenues in building a new energy infrastructure in depressed areas, expanding public transit and transit-oriented development, improving our public health infrastructure, and making investments in renewable energy sources.

Third, turning the corner on climate change and reducing income inequality requires that all Washingtonians have a stake in the low-carbon economy and a role in building it. Tuition subsidies or credits can help low-income students pursue degrees in “green technology” fields. And policymakers must ensure that new green jobs pay a living wage.

We understand the responsibilities that come with being a father. Demonstrating that we took advantage of the opportunity to make economic equity a vital component of the fight against global warming is one of the greatest gifts we can pass on. We can’t continue to wait to act, and we encourage all Washingtonians to demand action by state policymakers now.

Both authors are graduates of Garfield High School, class of 1990. Remy Trupin is the founder and executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. De’Sean Quinn is a member of the Tukwila City Council and the State Commission on African American Affairs.