“I don’t get it. What’s going on?” a woman asked me after a mixed race meeting of mostly strangers gathered to discuss the intersection of race and climate justice. She wanted to know why the host environmental group, 350 Seattle, had recently changed their position from endorsing to neutral on I-732 –-that’s the revenue neutral carbon tax initiative on the ballot this fall in Washington State. This woman wasn’t the first to ask me such a question. People probably ask that of me because I’ve had some unique experiences and connections with this issue and with the leaders of various local environmental groups. In response, I told her that it would take a while for me to explain, so we made an appointment to talk later. What follows here is essentially what I later said to her on the phone.
Understanding the opposition to I-732 is not easy. Many folks are confused by the various assertions floating about on websites, and occasionally quoted in the press. Much of that messaging is misleading and some of it is just not true in my analysis (and in the analysis of the independent think tank Sightline Institute). Some of the messaging has been heated and emotional, too. It seems as if the primary goal of some opposers is to create confusion and anxiety in the voting public, rather than to be factual and constructive.
Who would have thought there would be such vehement polarization among organizations that all say they want to fight climate change?
Some of the I-732 opposition reasoning seems obvious enough. Here is an excerpt taken from postings by an association of people of color groups named “Front and Centered”:
“I-732 does not adequately address who’s most impacted by fossil fuel pollution and climate change nor does it work to alleviate either of those burdens for communities and workers on the frontlines. Instead of confronting the inequities of pollution and the opportunity for a Just Transition, I-732 poses as tax reform. This is a step backwards for climate justice.”
And here’s another excerpt from the Washington State Labor Council’s posted statement:
“But our state’s climate policy must be comprehensive, so it protects families, communities, and jobs. I-732 fails this test.”
(Both of these two quoted groups say they are associated with the “Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy”, and many other members of that alliance do not endorse I-732.)
The common threads that I’ve seen in most of the I-732 opposition statements have to do with assertions regarding the following three topics:
(a) clean energy,
(b) jobs, and
(c) equity for the folks most impacted by climate change.
A few of the opposition organizations say that I-732 fails all of these things, and that it is actually “a step backwards”. The rest of the opposition groups claim that I-732 doesn’t do enough to promote one or more of these three desirable outcomes.
Reflecting on the opposition assertions, two important questions come to my mind:
(1) Does I-732 really fail to do these three things as the opposition claims? and,
(2) How likely is it that another broader and revenue positive carbon pricing policy could be passed either by voter initiative or via the State legislature?
Before addressing these two questions, let me briefly summarize what I-732 would actually do if it became law. It would:
- collect a tax on polluting fossil fuel from the companies who distribute them for consumption in Washington State at a rate that slowly increases over many years (in similar fashion to what British Columbia did in 2008 but with a greater impact over a longer time frame);
- allow fossil fuels distributors to pass the cost of tax on to consumers;
- incentivize use of clean energy alternatives, because it adds cost to the use of fossil fuels.
- apply about 80% of the new fossil fuel tax revenues to lower the sales tax (about a 1% sales tax drop in the second year of implementation);
- have very little or zero annual expense change for most people, since higher fossil fuel costs would be offset by reduced sales taxes;
- fund the long promised but never yet funded State matching contribution to the low income working families federal tax rebate for 460,000 low income families (to further mitigate the burden of increased fossil fuel
- eliminate the business and occupation tax for manufacturing firms to help them stay competitive in markets outside of Washington; and,
- reduce the regressivity of Washington State’s tax structure.
(Find expanded details at: yeson732.org . Also, by typing “I-732 Sightline” into a web browser you can find three thorough and even-handed research articles on I-732 from the independent Sightline Institute dated August 1, 2, & 3, 2016.)
Now, let’s address my first earlier question by returning to those three common threads found in opposition statements: clean energy, jobs, and equity. Does I-732 really endanger or fail to advance these three things?
(a)Clean energy? No. I-732 actually promotes development of a clean energy economy. Steadily increasing the tax on fossil fuels will increasingly make those fuels less competitive in the energy fuels market place. This is just basic market economics. Without any additional government regulation, just raising the cost of fossil fuels makes alternative clean energy more competitive and attractive. Therefore, I-732 will naturally incentivize the consumer market transition to alternative clean energy sources. Furthermore, as the fossil fuels tax increases in successive years, there will be more and more incentive for investment and expansion in the use of clean energy. The opposition assertion that I-732 doesn’t promote clean energy is patently false.
(b) Jobs? No. Passage of I-732 would add jobs. It will incentivize an economic transition to clean energy. That transition will require building and maintaining a clean energy infrastructure which will engage more and more people in new jobs. An increasing tax on fossil fuels will create many more clean energy related jobs than are currently tied to fossil fuels production and distribution. Therefore, with a gradually rising tax rate on fossil fuels, we should expect a steady net increase in Washington State jobs --not a drop. In summary, jobs are expected to increase with the passage of I-732, and existing programs can help individuals transition into clean energy economy jobs. The assertion that I-732 would be bad for jobs in Washington State is simply false.
(c)Equity for the folks most impacted by climate change? No. Though a good deal more help is needed, I-732 does nevertheless aid these most impacted people in the following ways:
- By funding the Low Income Working Families tax credit for 460,000 families.
- By reducing Washington’s sales tax which makes the tax structure less regressive and disproportionately burdensome to lower income people.
- By making consumption of fossil fuels less attractive and thereby slowing the effects of climate change.
- By promoting the growth of a clean energy infrastructure jobs market.
These I-732 consequences would clearly offer some equity advancement to low income people who tend to be more vulnerable to climate change impacts. Therefore, any assertion that I-732 would be a step backwards for folks most impacted by climate change is false. I-732 does improve equity for those most impacted. Furthermore, none of the I-732 measures would stand in the way of more equity improvements in the future.
So it is clear that passage of I-732 would result in significant progress in all three areas—clean energy, jobs, and equity. The opposition is either withholding support from I-732 or actively opposing it on the grounds that it doesn’t do enough, that we need policy that will increase revenue to be used for direct funding of projects in impacted communities. The question is, what are the chances of passing some sort of revenue positive climate policy that will accomplish more in terms of clean energy, jobs, and equity than I-732 will? How much can we realistically expect to accomplish toward these three ends in Washington State right now?
While many people including me wish for more polices to slow climate change and improve social equity, given the statewide voter tendency in recent years to maintain a frozen State budget, significant State policy changes that would require added revenue seem highly unlikely to pass here, at least in the near future. One must also consider the history in recent years of repeated stalemates in our state legislature on climate and equity matters, along with the repeated state budget shortfalls that have for several years failed to adequately fund basic education, even after it was mandated by our state supreme court. Any expectation of a dramatic shift toward a majority support for significant climate action from the state legislature seems like a pie in the sky dream. Furthermore, the repeated passage in several recent years of tax freezing voter ballot initiatives (like those often proposed by Tim Eyman) makes me and many other Washingtonians feel that any statewide ballot measure involving a tax increase for any cause whatsoever would be very unlikely to be approved by Washington voters. In conclusion, though many people want more public policies which would require more revenue and higher taxes (including me), a majority in our legislature and in the state-wide voting public do not want to grow the State revenue coffers one bit. Therefore, prospects of soon passing any revenue positive measures that would presumably fund more climate change fighting policies than those that I-732 would implement, do not seem at all realistic today in Washington State.
Now, let’s return to the big question: “What is going on?” Some organized labor groups, some people of color groups, and some environmental groups are loudly voicing opposition to I-732. They are also asserting that we can do more than
what I-732 promises to do by taking a revenue positive approach. They say this even though several recent public ballot and legislative votes in Washington have squelched the concept of tax increases. So, one has to wonder: “What is really going on?” Why do certain groups oppose I-732, while some other groups support it? Though I can’t answer with absolute certainty, I can offer up some plausible answers that are based upon unique private conversations that I have had with the leaders of three environmental groups which are not currently supporting I-732.
The most straightforward explanation that I received from one environmental group leader was from a person who serves on the “Hub” or steering committee of 350 Seattle. (Note: While 350 Seattle tends to follow leads offered up by the national 350.org organization that was founded several years ago in Vermont by Bill McKibben, the Seattle group was started just four years ago; it is completely separate and very much local to Seattle and funded by local donations.) In a private conversation with me, this 350 Seattle leader told me bluntly that the primary and overriding reason they changed their position on I-732 from “endorsing” to “neutral” this summer was because the leaders of some people of color groups that they had been recently cultivating relationships with had asked them to do so. The 350 Seattle steering committee very much wanted to stay friends with those people of color groups. However, the many 350 Seattle members who also supported I-732 were very much surprised and upset by this position change. In fact, the opinion of the 1000+ people on the 350 Seattle membership list was never polled about this position shift. It was just an exclusive and small leadership group consensus that made the position change. (And, I’m told, it was not a unanimous “Hub” decision, either.) So, that small Seattle 350 leadership committee put the value of their association with the leaders of certain people of color groups above their previous climate action position, and also above a vote of their membership, not to mention above the interests of the planet. One is left wondering if the outcome would have been different, had a club membership vote been taken. I do know that several folks have disassociated themselves from Seattle 350 subsequent to their announced position change on I-732.
I want to emphasize the membership disconnect at 350 Seattle because I understand that the much larger Washington State Audubon Society did poll all of their members before they announced their club’s endorsement of I-732 this summer.
In similar fashion to what happened at 350 Seattle, although on a much more complex scale, the Sierra Club’s Washington chapter has experienced a major disconnect between general membership and leadership over I-732. Once again, the overriding reason for not supporting I-732 had to do with the desire of certain Sierra Club leaders who wanted to stay friends with leaders of certain people of color organizations whose relationships they had been cultivating. However, the details of how this disconnect played out are convoluted, and complicated to explain. Due to the Sierra Club’s national notoriety, and due to my having taken time to privately interview all but one of the eighteen members of their Washington Chapter’s steering committee, I think it worth spending several paragraphs elaborating the details of how the Sierra Club’s “does not support I-732” position came to be publicized. However, for the sake of those less interested in the Sierra Club details I’ve included them as an appendix to this essay. (Scroll down to find this appendix) . Nevertheless, I do feel the general public should be aware of the Sierra Club’s very top down and heavy handed handling of this position statement. Though no one has been give opportunity to take a poll of the club’s Washington State membership support of I-732, I think it likely that such a poll would reflect similar findings to those revealed in the Washington State Audubon Society’s polling of their members which found a majority are supporters of I-732.
To summarize the crux of the Sierra Club’s national rationale, even though I-732 does help low income people by funding the previously promised but never funded State contribution to the federal low income working families tax credit, and I-732 also makes the state tax structure less regressive and burdensome to lower income people by reducing the state sales taxes, national Sierra Club staff feel that it does not fully meet the requirements of Sierra Club’s inclusive policy because some people of color (POC) groups have asserted that they were left out of the I-732 writing process. Consequently, I feel it is important to offer some perspective relating to that assertion by such POC groups.
Because the founding leaders of the new grass-roots organization behind the I-732 campaign --i.e. CarbonWA-- have told me that they actually did try to reach out to people of color groups early on as they were drafting the policy which became I-732, one has to wonder why that bridge was never built. Perhaps the gap occurred because there are so many people of color connected groups in our state. (I’ve heard of over 70). The young grass roots start up leaders of CarbonWA probably didn’t try to talk to all of them, or even a majority, due to their lack of time and very limited funds. CarbonWA leaders say that their attempted talks with certain people of color leaders broke down early because those POC leaders felt offended by the simple policy approach of the CarbonWA leaders. Also, leaders of some people of color groups who now oppose I-732 say that the revenue neutral concept of I-732 didn’t meet all of their demands for special assistance to the lower income people and neighborhoods that are “on the front lines of climate change impacts”. (Presumably, this “people on the front lines” terminology refers to, at least in part, low income people who can not readily buy their way into mitigating the impacts of climate change, and perhaps at least partially also refers to those living near sea level where people are most vulnerable to sea level rise, and those heavily dependent upon fish and other wildlife harvesting, and those living closest to railroads carrying hazardous fossil fuels, and those living closest to proposed new ports and pipelines that the fossil fuel companies want to build.) It seems likely that some people of color group leaders were encouraged early on by the more prominent environmental groups to not settle for the upstart CarbonWA policy, especially since those other well-known and established organizations were promising to enact a broader revenue positive policy that would more specifically target the needs of people of color. I do know that, at about the same time that the CarbonWA policy which ultimately became I-732 was first being drafted, leaders of a few long established local environmental groups that ultimately formed “The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy” in December of 2014 were telling their own members and key allies that, in concert with Governor Inslee, they would soon come up with a comprehensive revenue positive carbon pricing plan that would use the new carbon pricing revenue to do more than the CarbonWA policy offered. Having been myself engaged in the early formation of “The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy” (hereafter AFJCE), I know that this sort of preliminary hype was being broadcast to many group leaders in the local community at the same time that the CarbonWA organization was starting up. I was tracking both groups at that time.
In my view, the fundamental revenue neutral versus revenue positive difference between the CarbonWA/I-732 approach and the alternative concept voiced by what is now called the AFJCE is what likely fostered the unbridgeable rift between the two sides. It seems likely that the potential competition for followers and donors between the old-school and well established environmental groups and the new upstart CarbonWA also played heavily in the posturing that developed among several people of color organizations. Early on, the leaders of those POC organizations probably leaned toward trusting the “old environmental guard” organizations that were in the AFJCE, especially since that old guard promised to do more for them than what the new CarbonWA policy offered. Since CarbonWA leaders chose to hold steady with their revenue neutral approach because they felt it more likely to be passed by voters across the state, it is easy to understand why those who wanted special extra benefits beyond that simpler I-732 approach were motivated to support the other AFJCE side that promised them more benefits through a revenue positive approach.
There is one more important point to mention here. If I-732 becomes law, there is still much more climate policy work to be done. I-732 does not prevent government from adding new policies in the future. Therefore, additional policies with special extra benefits for the most severely impacted people could be later enacted, as could still more climate change related policies.
Of course, there are other organizations and groups who are not supporting I-732. As mentioned earlier, many of them are a part of the “Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy” (AFJCE). One organization that is a key leader of that alliance, if not the primary leader, is the Washington Environmental Council (WEC). For many years I’ve watched this organization do good work. I’ve supported them, too. About eight years ago, with them, I helped spearhead successful legislation that will now increasingly over successive years raise energy efficiency in new buildings through the periodic tightening of the statewide building energy code standards. On the East Side of Lake Washington, I actually helped WEC kick off what became known as the AFJCE. That alliance endorsed and rallied around Governor Inslee’s early 2015 bill when it was introduced into the legislature. I was there in Olympia then testifying in legislative committees in favor of that cap and trade carbon pricing plan. However, when the legislature failed to pass that plan, I quickly moved over to supporting CarbonWA’s I-732 plan and started gathering signatures in June of 2015. Having talked privately with the President of WEC about supporting I-732 since the Governor’s plan died, I must say that I’m disappointed that the conflict and split between the WEC (along with other groups in the AFJCE) and CarbonWA has never been put to rest. Based upon those private conversations and other experiences outside of those meetings, I have a sense of why a separation and divide has been maintained. Among those thoughts are the following:
- WEC is a powerful long-time leader of environmental actions in our state, and they want to stay that way.
- Early on, CarbonWA was a grass roots upstart that was essentially new to the State in 2014. Even now, but especially when they started up, CarbonWA has not had lots of money in the bank, nor have they many paid staff, nor have they had a decades long history of raising money such as WEC and other long lived environmental groups have enjoyed.
- CarbonWA was/is a potential competitor to the longer lived environmental groups for environmentally minded donors and participants.
- WEC and other long lived environmental groups and many in the AFJCE are used to working together successfully on past political campaigns. CarbonWA is a new outsider with no track record of successful alliances.
- The chosen wording of the I-732 ballot initiative was/is potentially confusing to voters. Consequently, by itself it has not polled well with voters who had no advanced knowledge of the details of I-732 and how it would work. Poor polling results empowered the opposing groups to dismiss I-732 as having no chance to pass—another reason not to bother to reach out to Carbon WA.
- The long lived environmental groups are also worried about being associated with an initiative that does not poll well. They believe a loss at the ballot will be crushing, so they are trying to delegitimize I-732 in hopes that if it fails it won't be seen as a mandate on the power of the 'real environmental movement'.
- Several organized groups, most notably several people of color organizations, want a big and broad climate change policy funded by a revenue positive approach. CarbonWA’s approach in I-732 is less complex and it is revenue neutral.
- Several people of color groups say that they were left out of the drafting of I-732. Even though I-732 will be of significant help to lower income people, not having had that initial engagement is very important to many --especially to the people of color, but also to the long lived environmental organizations who have big staff payrolls and who need to continue growing their membership in a current population demographic trend that is increasingly becoming more people of color based than white people based.
For all of these reasons, and perhaps others, it is hard for the new and the long-lived organizations who have joined together and united in the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy to welcome or to even co-exist with the upstart CarbonWA folks and their I-732 ideas. The primary gap between the two sides is the underlying revenue neutral foundation behind I-732. However, I really wonder if it isn’t much deeper than that. I do seriously wonder if big egos aren’t at play here. Certainly there is a lot of misinformation and unfounded assertion being floated by some of these groups which seems clearly directed toward discrediting what I view as a noble grass roots carbon pricing effort made by CarbonWA. It is as if they are in competition for being “in the lead” of the climate action movement, and as if that popular leadership role is the number one goal –a goal that appears to be even more important than saving humanity from destroying the planet.
What I do know with absolute certainty is this: These are desperate times. Leading scientist predict that we have only about five years to change what will otherwise become an unstoppable world-wide catastrophe for humanity and other species. I-732 is here right now. It’s on the fall ballot. No other action is even in the public policy queue in Washington State --either in legislative bill form or in voter initiative form. If I-732 passes, Washington State would be a leader in the country and the world in taking an aggressive course reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We could thereby spark other states and nations to follow suit. Whatever new action may be forthcoming in the future here in Washington would likely be a crap shoot to get passed before the next Presidential election year when a higher number of progressive minded voters tend to show up and vote. Even then, it would not be a shoo-in. Waiting that long pushes us right up against the closing five year window that leading scientists fear is all we have left to change the trajectory of humanity’s planetary future for several centuries. The trend of rising greenhouse gas emissions must be changed to rapidly falling by then. If we cross that line, or tipping point, without significant action toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, how will future generations reflect back on us if we don’t pass I-732 this fall? Every night as I turn out the lights and retire, I ask myself that question.
As for that young woman who I referred to at the start of this essay, at the end of our long follow-up conversation a few weeks ago she thanked me and said: “Now I understand. I want to help get the I-732 initiative passed.”
- For details on how I-732 has played out with the Sierra Club, scroll down to the Appendix: “What Is Going On Inside the Sierra Club Regarding I-732?”
- The author, Court Olson, speaks only for himself. He is a passionate environmentalist who has been a long time member of several environmental groups. Having degrees in Civil Engineering and Construction Management, he manages a small consulting firm helping commercial building owners build green buildings.
Appendix: What Is Going On Inside the Sierra Club Regarding I-732?
The Sierra Club’s position on I-732 is rooted in the manner in which the club is nationally ruled and also in the fact that in recent times the club has been (rightly) promoting the concept of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” This fall, the club is even launching a leadership training course here with this same title. In my view, the concept is a positive step toward addressing the racial divide in our society. To me the importance of improving racial justice and the need for building awareness can’t be downplayed. However, it appears that this good intention has overtaken the Sierra Club leadership’s approach to climate change and in particular to I-732.
To understand this, one needs to be aware of the organizational structure of the Sierra Club. Most people know that the Sierra Club has a reputation for good environmental work, most recently on the “Beyond Coal” campaign. But few people are aware that the club’s structure is very much one of top down control. A national board hires staff to implement their policies and that staff oversees local chapters and directs them on political matters. One of the club’s strong national policies requires a “One Club” stance on every position that the club takes, including election endorsements. No public dissent or conflict is allowed. Nationwide, everyone in the club must speak with one voice and be true to a policy or position that the national board assumes. The Sierra Club’s national paid staff are, in effect, the enforcers of this “one club” policy. Local chapters which diverge from the national control are subject to sanctions.
The Sierra Club is based in Oakland, California. Its national board members live all over the country. That board endorses the hiring of the club’s national staff members who make careers out of their positions. Club staff members are located in various regional offices in addition to the Oakland base. The Northwest regional office is in Seattle. I’m told that the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club shares that office with five or six national club staff members. The State Chapter itself funds only one full time staff position. The other staff there are paid with national club funds and they report to Oakland. Offices of the national staff take up most of the physical space. Because of these circumstances, the national staff has heavy influence on Chapter operations and decisions.
The eighteen member, all volunteer, Chapter Executive Committee (“ExCom”) typically meets one evening a month at the conference table in this same office; usually only about a half dozen of them are physically in the meeting room and the rest join in by speaker conference phone. Six of the ExCom members are representatives selected by different regional sub-groups located in different parts of the state; the other ExCom members are either heads of key committees or are elected “at large” by ballots sent to the statewide membership list each fall. With this outline of the Washington Chapter’s structure in mind, let me briefly share what I’ve learned about how the club’s public position on I-732 came about.
My interest in the Sierra Club’s published position started the first week in July when I first read the position statement in the summer edition of the Chapter’s quarterly newsletter called “The Crest”. It is important to know that no advanced I-732 polling of the general statewide chapter membership was done by the Sierra Club. Chapter members were not offered a voting ballot, and were not polled by phone on this issue. Most members first heard about it, as I did, by reading the position statement in “The Crest”. Probably because a lot of the folks who had gathered over 350,000 signatures last year to get I-732 on the state-wide ballot this fall were also Sierra Club members, many Washington Sierra Club Chapter members became quite upset when, to their surprise, they learned that the Chapter “does not support I-732” in that summer newsletter. The scathing anti-I-732 letter signed by the ExCom Chair, Margie Van Cleve, which accompanied the published position statement, added to their fury.
Prior to this July, I had been a long-time but largely silent Sierra Club member. In recent years I had attended several important public hearings and related climate action events that were co-sponsored by the Sierra Club along with other environmental organizations that I support. I did not, however, frequent Sierra Club meetings, and I was not previously familiar with the club’s leadership structure or with the Washington Chapter’s ExCom. When the summer newsletter came out, I promptly sent an email to the Chapter ExCom Chair voicing my strong objection to her published positon on I-732. I also copied all of the ExCom members (whose email addresses are listed on the Chapter’s website). Only the Chair responded, and she simply said that the matter was decided and final. A few days later I emailed all of my climate action friends asking them if they were Sierra Club members like me, and, if so, were they also upset by the Chapter’s unfavorable narrative and positon on I-732?
In just two days, I ended up receiving emails from nearly sixty Washington Chapter members who wanted to add their names to my list of members strongly objecting to the Chapter’s published position on I-732. With that strong of a showing, I planned to take these names to the July ExCom meeting which was scheduled to be held just ten days after my first email inquiry was sent to friends.
Two days after I initiated the inquiring email to friends, I learned from an ExCom member (whom I had not previously known) that the next ExCom meeting had suddenly and quietly been advanced up a whole week to the very next night. Because ExCom meetings are open to all Sierra Club members, the following morning I promptly emailed the ExCom Chair asking for permission to speak at their meeting that night on behalf of many fellow club members who were upset by the published position on I-732. The Chair, Margie Van Cleve, wrote back that afternoon saying that their meeting agenda was full and telling me that there would not be time for me to speak. I responded back that I was going to be there anyway, and I hoped that she would reconsider.
At the rescheduled ExCom meeting that evening in mid-July, it turned out that the ExCom Chair was absent and the Vice Chair was in charge. Early on, he kindly allowed me five minutes to speak. I told the ExCom of the 50+ people I already knew via personal email who were very upset by the published Club position on I-732. I asked the ExCom members to reconsider the published position and to take a poll of the club membership before they did that. I even offered to organize a volunteer staff and pay for the state-wide membership polling. However, the response was not encouraging. A couple of the ExCom members explained that they had thoroughly discussed the matter over several months and that they felt exhausted in that discussion. The Vice Chair, Jesse Piedfor
t, said that if the ExCom even considered my request at all, it would be at some time later. There was no promise of any follow up at all.
It was after this brief meeting experience that I committed myself to attempting private and confidential conversations with each of the eighteen Chapter ExCom members. I wanted to personally introduce myself, to learn more about each of them, and to dig into their personal thoughts around I-732. A few weeks later, I had accomplished that goal. After having had over an hour of confidential conversation with all but one of the eighteen ExCom members, I was astonished to learn that only two of them planned to vote against I-732 on their personal State election ballot in November. Two more were undecided. The other thirteen said that in November they would probably personally cast their State ballot vote in favor of I-732!!!
In those confidential Sierra Club Washington Chapter ExCom conversations I also learned that back in the late summer of 2015 the ExCom member majority consensus had been to support I-732. What changed their minds? I’m told by several ExCom members that multiple meetings and discussion involving national club staff, some of whom flew in from Oakland, put pressure on them to not support I-732. The problem seemed to be focused on the national Sierra Club policy of only supporting measures and policies that not only helped people of color, but that actually involved people of color in the development of those measures and policies. Leaders of some people of color groups in Washington State were asserting that they had been left out of the development of the I-732 policy. Sierra Club national staff based in Seattle had been trying to build relationships with these local leaders in recent years, and I-732 was getting in the way. Even though I-732 does help low income people by funding the previously promised but never funded State contribution to the federal low income working families tax credit, and I-732 also makes the state tax structure less regressive and burdensome to lower income people by reducing the state sales taxes, national Sierra Club staff felt that it did not fully meet the requirements of Sierra Club policy because some people of color groups said they had been left out of the I-732 writing process.
Regarding that assertion, please allow me to step aside from discussing just the Sierra Club for a couple paragraphs. Because the founding leaders of the new grass-roots organization behind the I-732 campaign --i.e. CarbonWA-- have told me that they actually did try to reach out to people of color groups early on as they were drafting the policy which became I-732, one has to wonder why that bridge was never built. Perhaps the gap occurred because there are so many people of color connected groups in our state. (I’ve heard of over 70). The young grass roots start up leaders of CarbonWA probably didn’t try to talk to all of them, or even a majority, due to their lack of time and very limited funds. CarbonWA leaders say that their attempted talks with certain people of color leaders broke down early because those POC leaders felt offended by the simple policy approach of the CarbonWA leaders. Also, leaders of some people of color groups who now oppose I-732 say that the revenue neutral concept of I-732 didn’t meet all of their demands for special assistance to the lower income people and neighborhoods that are “on the front lines of climate change impacts”. (Presumably, this “people on the front lines” terminology refers to, at least in part, low income people who can not readily buy their way into mitigating the impacts of climate change, and perhaps at least partially also refers to those living near sea level where people are most vulnerable to sea level rise, and those heavily dependent upon fish and other wildlife harvesting, and those living closest to railroads carrying hazardous fossil fuels, and those living closest to proposed new ports and pipelines that the fossil fuel companies want to build.) It seems likely that some people of color group leaders were encouraged early on by the more prominent environmental groups to not settle for the upstart CarbonWA policy, especially since those other well-known and established organizations were promising to enact a broader revenue positive policy that would more specifically target the needs of people of color. I do know that, at about the same time that the CarbonWA policy which ultimately became I-732 was first being drafted, leaders of a few long established local environmental groups that ultimately formed “The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy” in December of 2014 were telling their own members and key allies that, in concert with Governor Inslee, they would soon come up with a comprehensive revenue positive carbon pricing plan that would use the new carbon pricing revenue to do more than the CarbonWA policy offered. Having been myself engaged in the early formation of “The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy” (hereafter AFJCE), I know that this sort of preliminary hype was being broadcast to many group leaders in the local community at the same time that the CarbonWA organization was starting up. I was tracking both groups at that time.
In my view, the fundamental revenue neutral versus revenue positive difference between the CarbonWA/I-732 approach and the alternative concept voiced by what is now called the AFJCE is what likely fostered the unbridgeable rift between the two sides It seems likely that the potential competition for followers and donors between the old-school and well established environmental groups and the new upstart CarbonWA also played heavily in the posturing that developed among several people of color organizations. Early on, the leaders of those POC organizations probably leaned toward trusting the “old environmental guard” organizations that were in the AFJCE, especially since that old guard promised to do more for them than what the new CarbonWA policy offered. Since CarbonWA leaders chose to hold steady with their revenue neutral approach because they felt it more likely to be passed by voters across the state, it is easy to understand why those who wanted special extra benefits beyond that simpler I-732 approach were motivated to support the other AFJCE side that promised them more benefits through a revenue positive approach.
There is one more important point to mention here. If I-732 becomes law, there is still much more climate policy work to be done. I-732 does not prevent government from adding new policies in the future. Therefore, additional policies with special extra benefits for the most severely impacted people could be later enacted, as could still more new climate change related policies.
Now, back to the discussion of the Sierra Club’s “does not support I-732”position. As stated above, Sierra Club national staff and some members of the Chapter Executive Committee have pointed to the alleged lack of early participation by people of color groups in the development of I-732 policy as their primary reason for not supporting it (though CarbonWA leaders dispute that assertion). Even after many club members like me objected to the club’s scathing and erroneous position statement published in the Chapter’s summer newsletter, a few Executive Committee members and national club staff opposing I-732 have gone to great lengths to block majority attempts to modify the position. Here is a brief summary of what I have learned about Washington Chapter Sierra Club actions on I-732 since early July:
- With reluctance and strict brevity the Chapter ExCom let concerns about the Chapter’s published I-732 position be voiced in their July meeting. Representing over fifty members who had in just two days sent me emails confirming their strong objection to the Chapter’s published position, I asked the ExCom to: (1) reconsider their position; (2) poll the statewide membership before such reconsideration, much like Audubon had done (I offered to pay for the polling); and (3) allow an I-732 supporting letter to be published in the next (fall) edition of the Chapter newsletter. The acting chair of that meeting said that if they discussed my requests at all, it would not be in that meeting.
- Subsequent to their July meeting, I personally had one to one confidential discussions with seventeen of the eighteen Chapter ExCom members. In those private conversations I learned that only two of them planned to vote against I-732 on their personal State ballot this fall. Two others were undecided. Thirteen told me that they planned to vote for the measure on their personal State ballot.
- Also in those personal conversations with individual ExCom members I learned that in the summer of 2015, the ExCom voted to support I-732. After that first vote, there had been protracted discussions on I-732 for several months and also visits by the national Sierra Club Staff, some of whom flew in from Oakland. A national board member, national staff and some ExCom members, including the Chapter ExCom Chair, maintained that the vote to support I-732 was unacceptable. The ExCom’s initial position to support
on I-732 was, consequently, never published during this time frame.
- In the private interviews I also learned that at the ExCom’s April 2016 meeting several ExCom members felt exhausted by the many months of discussion on I-732. Several ExCom members who had formerly voiced a “support” position on I-732 felt inclined to move to a “neutral” stance so as to conclude the debate. Initially in that April meeting that shift by some led to a tie vote regarding a “neutral” position. To end the stalemate, at least one ExCom member favoring the “neutral” position changed their vote to “does not support”. (Several ExCom members told me this summer that such a position felt like being close to “neutral”.) Consequently, “does not support” did finally carry in a consensus vote at that April ExCom meeting. Though there had been much disagreement among ExCom members for several months, drawn out pressure from national staff and from the ExCom Chair ultimately pushed the ExCom to reach a consensus, albeit not a totally comfortable one for some.
- Having learned all of this history by early August, because the next scheduled ExCom meeting was not until September (and because August 30th was a known deadline for submitting content for publication in the fall Chapter newsletter), with help and encouragement from several ExCom members, in mid-August a special meeting of the ExCom was requested and scheduled for August 25th for the sole expressed purpose of discussing a possible change in the club’s position on I-732. Ahead of that meeting a solid majority of the eighteen ExCom members gave assurances to me and to fellow ExCom members that they would vote to change the Chapter’s position from “does not support” to “neither opposes nor supports” I-732.
- On August 23th, two days prior to the scheduled special meeting, in response to a request made by the Chapter’s ExCom Chair, an email from an Oakland based club official was circulated to ExCom members. That Oakland staffer’s email asserted that, according to Roberts Rules of Order (which bylaws say apply to Club meetings), the change of a prior meeting’s action by a body could not be subsequently undertaken if resulting consequences from the prior action could not be undone. The Oakland staffer said that the national Sierra Club Board had adopted the Washington ExCom’s April position, so it could not now be undone. The Chapter’s Chair then announced that there could be no vote to change the club position on I-732. Only conversation about I-732 would be allowed in the special August 25th meeting. (Note: This ruling on Roberts Rules was not consistent with reference book interpretations of RRO which state that the type of things that “cannot be undone” include such things as signed contracts, transfers of property, and employment actions. A professional parliamentarian consultant who was enlisted later by a club member also said that the club staffer made an incorrect interpretation of Roberts Rules.)
- On August 25th, citing the club staffer’s ruling, the Chapter ExCom Chair opened the special ExCom meeting with the statement that a vote to change the club position on I-732 could not be held. After much parliamentary procedural confusion and voting to override the Chair’s rulings, the ExCom majority passed a motion to appeal the national staff ruling that denied them opportunity vote on changing their position on I-732. After that motion passed, another motion was made and seconded to take a conditional vote on a new I-732 position, pending the outcome of the appeal on the national staff interpretation of Roberts Rules of Order. A national staff director based in Oakland and a national board member from the East Coast who were both on the conference call by the invitation of the Chapter’s ExCom Chair, spoke up and said that that motion was out of order. Soon afterwards, the ExCom Chair unilaterally adjourned the meeting just after 9pm and hung up her phone. (Note: Roberts Rules of Order require a motion, a second, and a majority vote to adjourn, and none of these occurred.)
- Though several people then dropped off of the August 25th ExCom conference call, several ExCom members and the national staff director and the national board member and a few other club members stayed on the conference call. The remaining ExCom members appointed an acting Chair and proceeded with discussion for another hour. In the ensuing discussion, the national staff and national board attendees were allowed to voice their views. In response, I encouraged them to read the three I-732 research reports that had been published in early August and which were broadly positive in their findings. The national staff director, who said he was an attorney, said that he had read those reports and that in one of them he found a Sightline statement saying that they could not find sufficient evidence to prove that there was early involvement by people of color in the drafting of I-732; that finding, the national director said, was contrary to Sierra Club policy and enough reason for the club to not support I-732. Finally, over the objections of the national board member and the national staff director whose opinions were fully expressed by then, the eight still attending Chapter ExCom members voted unanimously, with one abstention, and conditional on the successful appeal of the previous out of order ruling, to change the Chapter’s I-732 position from “does not support” to the following:
The Sierra Club neither opposes nor supports I-732.
In the event that I-732 passes in this November election, the Club will reach out and work with many allied organizations to (1) enact public policies to assure a just transition for labor groups affected by the carbon pricing measures; and (2) develop along with climate equity groups and organized labor additional public policies which are needed to prevent and mitigate climate change.
In the event that I-732 fails to pass in this November election, the Club will work with allied organizations to enact a carbon pricing plan that is fair and equitable for all stakeholders, including labor, climate justice, race and social justice, and industry groups. In addition, Sierra Club will continue to pursue alliances with a broad coalition to further change public policies in order to reduce the rate of and mitigate climate change.
- On August 29th, the Chapter ExCom sent their official appeal of the national club staffer’s interpretation of Roberts Rules to the Club’s national judicial appeals committee. The appeals committee includes only two club volunteers (who, incidentally, live outside of Washington State) and also the same Oakland based club staffer who made the original “out of order” ruling on August 23rd. On September 6th, in an email from the Oakland based staffer who made the original ruling, the appeals committee responded with a decision to uphold the August 23th “out of order” ruling the Oakland staffer had made. End of story.
In summary, changing the Sierra Club’s public position on I-732 was blocked by national staff with the apparent concurrence (though never verified, despite my requesting it) of two Sierra Club volunteers living outside of Washington State who chose to interpret Roberts Rules of Order in ways that are, to put it kindly, outside of the norm. So, even though a majority of the Washington Sierra Club Chapter Executive Committee does not agree with it, the “does not support” position remains the only one presented in the public view. Due to the Club’s national “one voice” policy, the Chapter Executive Committee members with a different personal position than “does not support” are not allowed to publicly voice any different view.
To conclude the Sierra Club discussion, I wish to add a footnote. Though I am extremely disheartened by the Sierra Club's conduct around I-732, I do see some good efforts recently starting in the Washington Sierra Club Chapter around the importance of energy efficiency in buildings. Because this is a field that I know professionally has a huge potential impact on climate change, I plan to continue working closely with the Chapter, along with other groups with whom I associate, in promoting stronger public policies on energy efficiency.