It is very, very easy to fall down the minutia rabbit hole when it comes to climate policy—specifically because the writing of these policies has been characterized by white male power brokering between strong and potentially problematic personalities. This “business as usual” approach to public decision making (where the right men get around the right table and fix the right problems) just doesn't work for climate policy. Why? Because of the moral and economic quandaries that underlie how we address a planetary-scale problem at a regional level. Climate change is inseparable from decision making on human rights, because of the basic moral math that the poorest and most vulnerable communities have the greatest to lose and yet are the least culpable for contributing to the problem. I'm going to say it like it is: When climate policy is written by white men in a closed room, that is white supremacy.
This is why you should be paying attention to Initiative 1631, which is currently in the signature gathering stage and potentially on its way to voters in the fall. I-1631 comes on the heels of the failure of carbon tax Initiative 732 in 2016, when 58 percent of voters rejected the initiative.
Why did I-732 fail? Well, that depends on who you ask. But, I think a clear component of the failure is the way that the initiative spilt the social justice and environmental communities down the center. Social justice and equity organizations called out both the lack of diverse voices in the initiative writing process and the lack of equity in how the generated revenue would be spent. The coalition that has written I-1631 is a cat of a different persuasion.
Equity and justice organizations, such as Front and Centered (Communities of Color for Climate Justice) and Puget Sound Sage, are coalition members. Funds are committed to line items such as addressing the “energy burden” of low income households, environmental justice issues, and displaced fossil fuel workers.
Climate policy is about power and moral weight. You can see, on both I-732 and I-1631, the finger of economic interests tipping the scale away from strong action. Why did I-732 pander to business interests and look away from justice seeking communities? Why does I-1631 exempt aviation and marine fuels, along with coal plants operational until 2025? This is the chilling effect of money and power—it changes what we are all willing to stand up for in public. And it inserts political reality in front of physical reality—despite the disturbing and Orwellian conclusions of that orientation.
And yet, amid this complexity, we also have very discrete goals. The City of Seattle’s Climate Action plan has committed us to carbon neutrality by 2050. Ambitious indeed, but not untethered from reality. This commitment should reframe how immediate and vital the need is to change the economics around carbon pollution. We need to build the economy of the future—and directly indict the companies and political leaders profiteering off heating the planet. This is why King County recently announcing a lawsuit against five fossil fuel companies (BP, Chevron, Conocophillips, Exon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell) is so exciting. We need public institutions—and those involved in the initiative writing process—to have the damn ovaries to stand up to the centers of economic and cultural power. Political realities should not fucking trump reality realities.
When thinking about climate action and priorities, I might suggest an old trope from that awkward improv workshop you took in college: “Yes, and...?” Yes, let’s put a price on carbon with initial legislation. And, let’s anticipate that there will be many, many steps to ratchet down emissions in the next 32 years. Yes, we need to build equity and human rights into climate policy. And we need to anticipate many, many future iterations of that value system in public, as we wrestle with fundamentally reseating power away from the colonial system that brought us to this brink of planetary madness.