By Jody Lowenstein
This election, residents of Washington state will head to the polls to vote on a ballot initiative proposing the “first carbon tax in the US, the biggest in North America, and one of the most ambitious in the world.” The proposition, Initiative 732, would impose a tax on fossil fuel-generated greenhouse gases, rising to $25 a ton in 2018, and gradually increasing “over a few decades until it hits $100 a ton in 2016 dollars.” To put this cost in perspective, a “typical passenger car emits about five metric tons of carbon dioxide in a year.” The cost of this tax would increase gasoline prices by 25 cents a gallon and 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired power. The measure proposes to use the tax revenue to “reduce the state sales tax . . . eliminate the business and occupation tax on manufacturing,” and provide a tax rebate of “up to “$1,500 a year for 460,000 low-income households.” In August, Initiative 732 was polling at a three-point deficit, with 34 percent supporting and 37 percent opposed. However, since then, the initiative has been gathering steam, polling in early October at 42 percent with 37 percent opposed. With 21% undecided, the likelihood of success is far from certain.
Even though the carbon tax is held out by “economists, climate wonks, and progressives” as “the best way to address climate change,” Initiative 732 has met resistance from nearly all factions of the left, including “most big environmental groups.” The source of this opposition stems from a foundational dispute among climate hawks on how to move climate policy forward in a hyperpartisan political environment. With Republican obstructionism offering no signs of abatement, one camp has concluded that the only path available for implementing substantial climate policy is through the unification of a leftist coalition, including environmentalists, labor, and communities of color, to force climate policies into law. On the other side, a group of climate activists seeking to remove the ideological characterizations of climate change envisage a bipartisan opportunity in enacting climate policies. This latter tactic has formed the underpinnings of Initiative 732.
The rationale behind Initiative 732 was to garner bipartisan support by incorporating a revenue-neutral approach to the carbon tax (i.e., offsetting all tax revenue with tax cuts). Conceptually, the fact that Initiative 732 could cut “carbon without growing the size of government” would attract conservatives who recognize the risk of climate change. However, this inevitably earned the ire of tax-and-spend liberals, a core component of nearly any comprehensive climate measure.
Many liberals see Initiative 732 as a half-measure that fails to provide the necessary investments in creating a new green economy. Largely, they suggest that any successful carbon tax measure must invest its revenue into renewable energy infrastructure, incentivizing green manufacturing, retraining displaced workers, and funding public transit projects.
Regardless of its outcome, the fight taking place in the State of Washington portends America’s own battle over the future of climate policy. That battle begins with the high-probability that the Democrats will win a third consecutive presidential term (the first time for either party since 1988) in the midst of Republican dislocation. In response to Democratic dominance in presidential elections, the Republicans have assumed the role of a parliamentary minority, opposing the President’s agenda in its entirety. This methodology of governance rests on the presupposition that the only way to succeed at the polls for an increasingly unrepresentative party is to delegitimize the President by obstructing any legislative efforts by the President. Therefore, any attempt by a future President Clinton to pass a significant piece of climate policy legislation with either the House or Senate under Republican control is a non-starter.
Yet, the magnitudinous threat of climate change remains. Thus, two imperative questions have been asked in the battle over Initiative 732: “can the right climate policy cut through hyperpolarization,” and if not, could a united left coalition overcome Republican intransigence? The latter question assumes that anti-climate sentiment among a large portion of the Republican party electorate will subside. This assumption is belied by the trend of increasing homogeneity among each parties’ voters, each willing to assume a party’s entire political agenda if it represents the few interests important to the voter. Furthermore, the populist resentment towards the social and economic drivers disrupting the status quo has shown its broad resonance in a significant portion of the electorate. The former question assumes that hyperpartisanship, party homogeneity, and tribalism can be overcome by playing to half the interests of each. This approach has yet to be tested in Washington D.C.’s current political climate.
On November 8th, Initiative 732 will pose the question of whether bipartisanship will pave the way for a new green economy in America, or whether the left will tie climate policy idealism around its neck like a millstone.
 David Roberts, The Left vs. a Carbon Tax, vox.com, http://www.vox.com/2016/10/18/13012394/i-732-carbon-tax-washington (last visited November 3, 2016).
 Washington State’s Ambitious Carbon Tax Proposal, nytimes.com, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/opinion/washington-states-ambitious-carbon-tax-proposal.html (last visited November 3, 2016).
 Roberts, supra note 1.
 Joel Connelly, Thumbs Up to Minimum Wage, Risk Protection, Consumer Fraud Initiatives: Poll, seattlepi.com, http://www.seattlepi.com/local/politics/article/Thumbs-up-to-minimum-wage-risk-protection-9153890.php (last visited November 3, 2016).
 Robert Mak, KOMO Poll: Murray Has Double-Digit Lead in Senate Race, Initiatives Have Strong Support, komonews.com, http://komonews.com/news/local/komo-poll-murray-has-double-digit-lead-in-senate-race-voters-divided-on-initiatives (last visited November 3, 2016).
 David Roberts, The Political Hurdles Facing a Carbon Tax — And How to Overcome Them, vox.com, http://www.vox.com/2016/4/26/11470804/carbon-tax-political-constraints (last visited November 3, 2016).
 Roberts, supra note 1.
 Roberts, supra note 1.