The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The left’s opposition to a carbon tax shows there’s something deeply wrong with the left

A Tesoro refinery. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON STATE will vote next month on one of the most ambitious climate-change programs ever seriously considered in the United States. Yet major players in the environmental movement either oppose the ballot measure or are undermining its chances in less formal ways.

You might assume these environmental groups were making the perfect the enemy of the good. But they are not defending the perfect. Their approach would be worse than what is on Washington’s ballot. They are wrong on the politics and wrong on the substance.

The ballot initiative would impose a significant tax on carbon dioxide emissions, the main culprit in human-caused climate change, and set the tax level to rise annually. Because low-income people would be disproportionately harmed by the tax, the state would use the revenue to reduce the state sales tax and increase the earned-income tax credit for the working poor. This would protect the poor and make Washington's tax structure, one of the nation's most dysfunctional, more progressive. This win-win plan is optimized to fight climate change; economists have explained for years that pricing carbon, as with a carbon tax, is the most efficient way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, because it impels consumers and businesses to change their behavior without bureaucratic micromanagment.

The activists want micromanagement. Because the plan would recycle the revenue it raised, none would be left over for "investments" that activists favor. Elements of the coalition that environmentalists have assembled want "green jobs" programs, initiatives aimed specifically at communities of color, infrastructure that labor unions favor, and so forth. In other words, softening the blow for the poor and middle class is not enough. The government must divert the revenue according to the wishes of specific interest groups.

To some, naked interest-group politics is a principle of sorts. In a detailed account of the environmentalist civil war over Washington's ballot initiative, Vox's David Roberts explained that many activists believe that building a big leftist coalition is the only way major action on climate will happen. Recycling carbon-tax revenue, rather than showering it on interest groups, "loses you the left coalition, and with it the big left funders, and doesn't gain you any Republicans." Maybe — just maybe — this reflects not just a failure on the part of Republican climate head-in-the-sanders, but also of "the big left funders" and their intellectual enablers. If the movement cannot accept economically sound policy that would help solve the fundamental problem, there is something deeply wrong with the movement.

As it happens, the activists’ self-justifying political analysis is wrong, too. In most of the country, a leftist coalition could not impose a dramatic climate plan premised on jacking up taxes and government spending. If it really wants to fight climate change, the movement should be able to take yes for an answer.

Read more:

The Post’s View: With more people hitting the road, it’s time for a carbon tax

Letters to the Editor: A carbon tax is the wrong solution

Robert J. Samuelson: Why tax reform is doomed

The Post’s View: The carbon tax