Environmentalists Say the Time to Act on Climate Is Now. Voters Aren’t So Sure.
Although numerous left-leaning measures found success at the ballot box last week, many voters said "no thank you" to policies that could curb climate change.
Washington state, for the second election cycle in a row, rejected putting a price on carbon emissions. Arizonans won't require utilities to get half of their energy from renewable sources. And in Colorado, voters declined to require more distance between homes or parks and oil and gas drilling.
"It's a setback. To suggest otherwise would be too simplistic," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, of last week's results across the country. "But to say it permanently puts the damper on progress is an exaggeration."
Environmentalists say the state level still might be the best place to seek changes, though not necessarily at the ballot box, where the energy industry remains a fierce and well-funded foe. Given the defeats, green groups say they need time to reflect and regroup, but generally will emphasize a host of alternative tactics, including filing lawsuits, targeting local problems and lobbying governors and state legislators.
"We don't solely strive to make progress through ballot initiatives," Brune said. "We don't solely try to make progress through elections. There are lots of ways you can make progress on climate change, whether through courts or cities, or working to replace coal plants at the local level."
And other efforts without an obvious environmental focus matter too.
The Sierra Club threw its support behind several of what it calls "pro-democracy" measures, such as independent redistricting commissions and measures to enhance ballot access, that Brune said could result in new leadership and change not just the electorate but how they respond to climate change issues. Most are measures pushed by Democrats, who also are more likely than Republicans to favor environmental regulations.
The losses on green measures stuck out as voters nationwide backed numerous policies generally supported by progressives. Florida, for example, approved a measure that returns voting rights to 1.5 million people with a felony record. Michigan approved recreational marijuana. Missouri passed a minimum wage hike.
There were some environmental victories too.
Florida voters approved a measure that bars offshore oil and gas drilling in state waters. (Florida law already bars such drilling, but the measure adds the drilling ban to the state constitution.) And Nevada voters said "yes" to a renewable energy measure like the one rejected by Arizonans.
But even as natural disasters of increasing strength hit communities and consensus grows in the United States among voters that climate change is real and caused by humans, only 7 percent of voters in a national Associated Press poll, taken in the days leading up to the election, said they considered the environment to be their top issue.
"We need to translate climate change to people's daily lives" to make a difference at the ballot box, said Kevin Curtis, head of the NRDC Action Fund, the political wing of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national advocacy group. "That means making it more real and more immediate. The bad news is the impacts really are starting to show up daily, and people are starting to become aware of that. Our job is to accelerate that understanding."
Curtis said he was encouraged by the number of Democratic governors elected who he said, along with legislators and cabinet secretaries, may be in a better position than voters to enact detailed climate policy.
Democrats have flipped seven governors' offices and will control the executive and legislative branches in 14 states. Curtis pointed to Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, who pledged to bring the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Gov.-elect Jared Polis in Colorado campaigned on getting 100 percent clean energy there by 2040, which would be the most aggressive pace in the nation.
Carbon Tax a 'Non-Starter'
Washington's ballot measure would have established the nation’s first price on carbon. The campaign for and against the measure was the most expensive in Washington history.
The "No" campaign, spearheaded by the Western States Petroleum Association, raised more than $30 million from oil giants such as BP and Phillips 66. The "Yes" campaign counted former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Microsoft's Bill Gates among its top five donors, along with environmental groups, for the roughly $15 million raised.
Washington's 1631 initiative would have charged utilities $15 per ton of carbon produced starting in 2020, raising it gradually to $55 a ton in 2035. In a 2016 report to the Washington Legislature, the state Department of Ecology found that the state produced about 94 million tons of carbon in 2013.
Voters rejected a similar measure in 2016. But while the previous proposal was a tax, allowing legislators to spend the money freely once it reached state coffers, this year's measure was a fee, requiring the revenue be spent on environmental programs. The state estimated the fee would bring in $2.2 billion in the first five years.
Opponents quickly labeled this year's proposal a tax anyway, saying it would add about $300 a year to families' energy bills. Proponents said that figure would be closer to about $120 a year.
Supporters say they are not giving up. But with both approaches failing to resonate with voters, it's unclear what sort of proposal the legislature might pursue.
"We will definitely be pushing in the upcoming legislative session for something like this, because the problem is not going away. It's not an option," said Nick Abraham, spokesman for Yes on 1631, Washington's carbon fee campaign.
Yoram Bauman, an economist who crafted and spearheaded Washington’s 2016 measure, said the green movement too often blames campaign spending by the fossil fuel industry for an inability to get votes, rather than trying to build a coalition that includes those industries in negotiating a compromise policy.
"My fear is they are going to double down on campaign finance reform and say oil is buying the election," Bauman said of environmental activists. "But if you're going to have to wait to have climate action until after we have campaign finance reform, well, call me when I'm dead."
Curtis with NRDC Action Fund said that for a carbon tax to have its intended effect of reducing people's fossil fuel use, "it has to be so darn high it's politically a non-starter."
Given that uphill battle, he thinks it may make more sense to pursue policies that require states to get a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources.
However, as Arizona and Nevada showed this year, the results can be mixed.
The campaign against Arizona's Proposition 127 was the most expensive in state history. It drew more than $50 million in political spending, of which more than $30 million was spent in opposition. The parent company of the state's largest utility, Arizona Public Services, was the largest funder against the measure.
"When you're going against entrenched interests willing to spend millions of dollars to muddy the waters, it becomes a 'no' vote when there's any confusion at all," said D.J. Quinlan, a spokesman for the Yes on 127 campaign. "You can see people at polling places saying, 'I really love solar power and would love to invest but I'm not sure this ballot measure is the right way to do that.'"
"We've said throughout this campaign there is a better way to create a clean-energy future for Arizona that is also affordable and reliable," said Don Brandt, Arizona Public Services chairman, president and CEO, in a statement election night. The company said it would organize "an effort to gather ideas and seek input from customers and stakeholders."
Colorado's measure would have required oil drilling to be about a half-mile away from parks, homes and businesses.
"Our state has spoken loud and clear that we recognize the importance of the industry to the state's economic well-being," Tracee Bentley, executive director of Colorado Petroleum Council, which represents the oil and natural gas industry, said in a statement about the measure's defeat.
Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, which supported the measure, did not see it that way.
"No one in this state would be foolish enough to say that tonight's result means that voters want an oil and gas rig closer to their homes, schools or hospitals," she said in a statement issued Tuesday. "We need our leaders to take action in 2019 to ensure that Colorado has the strongest protections in the West."
In Arizona, supporters of the failed initiative criticized the Republican-led attorney general's office for adding language to the summary that appeared on ballots saying utilities would have to meet the energy standards "irrespective of cost." The measure did not address cost; it only specified that utilities must get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.
An August email obtained by the Arizona Republic showed the state’s election director questioned the additional wording from the attorney general’s office.
"The Prop. 127 language is certainly eyebrow-raising because it cites information exogenous to the ballot measure itself," wrote State Election Director Eric Spencer, the Republic reported. "But I'm sure you've calculated the legal and political risks of adding that."
Quinlan said the manipulated ballot language didn't reflect the wording of the actual measure.
"It was a devastating change for our campaign," Quinlan said.