As the North Pole warms to above-freezing temperatures in mid-winter, ice sheets melt and sea levels surge, the Washington state legislature has abandoned, for now, its plan to tax carbon dioxide emissions. The news is especially discouraging because Washington is the only state that’s come close to passing such a tax - the strongest weapon against climate change.
Gov. Jay Inslee, D, had been determined to get the measure through, and had a lot of support in the state senate.
But such is the political toxicity of an energy tax, he couldn’t get enough votes.
Not yet, anyway. Washington state is not giving up: There’s talk of putting the issue to voters again. And there are signs of movement elsewhere too. Seven other states plus the District of Columbia are debating carbon-tax legislation. California has recently extended its cap-and-trade program - which puts a price on carbon emissions, if indirectly ‑ and the Oregon legislature is considering doing the same.
Perhaps the accumulating concrete signs of climate change are helping people recognize the need to act. But stronger leadership is also needed to get state carbon taxes across the finish line. What’s needed most is to get this issue out of partisan politics, where it never belonged. There’s nothing left or right about seeing that lower emissions are essential to insure against the possibility of extreme warming, sea-level rise and severe weather patterns.
Carbon taxes, moreover, should appeal to Republicans as much as Democrats, for two reasons. First, they make it possible to reduce emissions with a minimum of government intervention. Put a price on carbon pollution that accounts for the damage it inflicts, and the market can be left to work out the most efficient ways to dial it back. Second, the revenue can be used to reduce other taxes. (The legislation in Washington was not revenue-neutral, which may explain why it failed to draw Republican support.)
Right now, Congress is paralyzed and the White House is testing the limits of dysfunction. Climate policy cannot wait, so the task falls to the states. Governors and legislatures that recognize the problem shouldn’t have to bear this burden, but they do. They need, so far as possible, to depoliticize the issue, and lead.