I a climate scientist working at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. My research, and that of thousands of other climate scientists, indicates that, unless global emissions of carbon dioxide are reduced substantially in the next few decades, this region will suffer more frequent reductions in mountain snowpack like the one last year, severely impacting agriculture in this region. That is the scientific consensus, which we dismiss at our peril.
Washington alone cannot reduce carbon emissions enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, but we can provide an example of how to do so without hurting the economy. Since other regions will suffer the effects of sea-level rise, ocean acidification and more destructive storms, they will also be motivated to follow our example.
As a private citizen, I am convinced that market-based, revenue-neutral action to reduce emissions is preferable to heavy-handed regulation, or to carbon-pricing mechanisms that do not return the revenue to the economy. Washington State Initiative 732 would tax fossil carbon to account for the considerable costs that consumers do not pay, such as rising sea levels in a warming climate, and reduced mountain snowpack when rainfall replaces snow. The Cascade snowpack has already declined 25 percent in the past 50 years, threatening the summertime snowmelt that farmers rely on for irrigation, and increasing forest wildfires as soils become drier.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide has already risen from 280 parts per million in 1850 to 400 ppm today. The last time it was this high was 3 million years ago, when sea level was 80 feet higher than today. Unless carbon emissions are reduced substantially and quickly so that natural processes can draw the concentration below 400 ppm, it is only a matter of time before the ice on Greenland and Antarctica melts, flooding our coastal cities.
Most economists agree that a steadily increasing tax on carbon is the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions, and that returning the revenue to the economy would allow continued economic growth. Regulation is much less efficient and comprehensive. Increasing fossil carbon prices would stimulate the market to find energy efficiencies and carbon substitutes. This is much more efficient than subsidizing technologies that might not be the most effective choices.
To return the revenue to the economy, I-732 would reduce the state sales tax by 1 percent, which affects people with low incomes more than most. It would also virtually eliminate business and occupation taxes on manufacturers to keep businesses in Washington, and it would protect the poor with expanded tax rebates. Most people would come out ahead after the revenue is returned, particularly if they apply their rebates to reducing their use of carbon energy.
Hybrid and electric vehicles offer immediate opportunities to reduce emissions from transportation. Tractors powered by hydrogen fuel cells have already been developed and are ready as the tax on fuels for agriculture phases in over 40 years. Additional electricity can be generated with nuclear, wind and solar. With a clear price signal on carbon, the market could produce efficiencies and technologies that we can’t even imagine today.
As for the state budget, although returning the carbon tax to the economy cannot be guaranteed to exactly match present tax revenue, the state estimates that I-732 would match net revenue within 0.7 percent, which is far better than the uncertainty in state forecasts of revenue each year. Special interests opposed to I-732 are irresponsibly raising false fears about the state budget.
If it passes, I-732 would be the first revenue-neutral, market-based approach in the nation to reducing carbon emissions. It would appeal to other states as they see Washington continuing to flourish. British Columbia has been using a similar method since 2008, and it is doing just fine.
I urge you to do your part to protect future generations. This November, vote for the most effective and efficient method offered to limit climate change. And tell your friends and relatives about it!
Steve Ghan is a climate scientist and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres. He also leads the Tri-Cities chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.