The Washington Strong Act: It’s Big, It’s Bold, It’s Necessary

by Emily Knudsen, Chair 37th LD Environment and Climate Caucus

In this moment, challenges abound. Right when we see a glimmer of hope,[1] we see a mountain of despair at the very next turn.[2] It’s not just discouraging, it’s heartbreaking and, quite frankly, often enraging. Moreover, SSCAN members and other climate activists know that while we are now facing new global threats, the climate crisis has only become more dire as well.

I’m writing to tell you that there’s still some reason for hope. We have the incredible opportunity to “build back better,” to create more resilient communities, to shrink our climate impact, to repair environmental health disparities, to have cleaner air and water, to have restored forests and other ecosystems, to shift to a green economy. The Washington Strong Act can help us create that future. The bill is sponsored by Representative Debra Lekanoff[3] and Senator Liz Lovelett, with valuable input from Front and Centered and many other stakeholders.[4] WA Strong is a recovery bond program that would provide at least $16 billion over 10 years to accelerate our transition to a clean economy and create up to 150,000 green jobs.

Some have said this isn’t the year to talk about climate. We have our hands full with the health and economic disasters. Undoubtedly, these are critical problems that require top priority. But we absolutely cannot afford to kick the can down the road on climate or we will only create a future in which we are facing even greater economic and health catastrophes. With this legislation, we don’t have to play favorites, because it invests in what will lift up our communities for climate and economic resiliency simultaneously.

Green Recovery Creates Superior Job Growth

An analysis by Low Carbon Prosperity Institute and ClimateXchange[5] has found that investments in clean transportation, forest conservation, clean energy, energy efficiency, low carbon agriculture, and sustainable industry is the best path for economic recovery. Since these investments support relatively labor-intensive industries, there’s greater job creation potential than other industries. Not only does this model of economic recovery produce superior job growth than investing in other industries, it also has high returns for community health and the climate.

Equitable Recovery Means Repairing Harm

The authors of WA Strong were thoughtful about addressing the inequities that have only gotten worse with this pandemic. Emerging socioeconomic data will inform where investments should be prioritized to ensure that those in most need of economic support will be among the first to benefit. Moreover, BIPOC communities have experienced environmental harm for generations, often leading to significantly worse health outcomes. As champions for environmental justice, Rep. Lekanoff and Front and Centered also ensured that this bill will help address long-standing environmental inequities. WA Strong investments will be informed by the HEAL Act and environmental health disparity data that’s collected by the Department of Health to direct funds to highly-impacted communities.[6]

Green Bonds Offer Scale and Speed to Jumpstart Our Clean Economy Transition

Our tax code is notoriously regressive and needs to be remedied.[7] That said, even with new sources of tax revenue, it takes time to trickle in. Drips and drabs will never be able to provide us with the money we need to address climate in the limited timeframe we have to work with. This is why we have to look to other sources, too. By structuring this as a bond program, we will have access to the funds upfront, and then repay them with tax revenue over time. This gives us a head start on investments and helps us make up a little for those past years of inaction.

Further, since the bond is a certified “special obligation bond,” it is not subject to the state’s spending limits. In other words, this opens up access to funds that would otherwise be unavailable to us on a scale that is necessary to sufficiently address our environmental and economic troubles. That also means we won’t have to compete with other programs, services and policies to get budget allocated for climate action.

Pricing Pollution

It’s well past time to put a price on carbon. Is it a panacea on its own? Of course not. No climate policy is. But by implementing a price on carbon, we:

  • Make polluters pay for the environmental and health harms they cause, reversing the practice of subsidizing oil and gas
  • Provide a bigger incentive for polluters to invest in efficiency and less carbon-heavy alternatives
  • Create a predictable source of revenue to pay off the green bonds
  • Set a price that will correspond with hitting our climate goals

As is true with nearly any additional cost that a company incurs, a price on carbon[8] will be passed on to consumers if it doesn’t impact demand. We can either let oil companies set the highest price they think they can get away with to line their own executives’ pockets. Or, we can make it more costly to pollute, then capture and redirect that amount back to our communities.

All the while, green investments would make us less reliant on fossil fuels, further reducing overall pollution in the long run. As carbon is phased out of our economy, the tax also sunsets. This is by design, because we should not create a system where we become hooked on a new revenue generator that relies on carbon pollution.

By opting for a tax, we also have control over the pricing. The starting price is $25/ton and increases 5% a year. By 2030, if we’re still falling short of our emissions goal set by the legislature last year,[9] then the price ratchets up another $10 to further incentivize phasing out fossil fuels.

Moreover, the authors of WA Strong were also thoughtful about how the tax would impact low- and middle-income families. After all, those with the smallest paychecks contribute the least to climate pollution and should not shoulder the burden of fixing it. Direct relief will be provided to those making less than $50,000/year to offset additional cost. (This article by Front and Centered talks more about the criteria for an equitable carbon tax.)

Funding Urgent Climate Solutions

Climate action plans across the state have been collecting dust. With increasingly limited funds to implement them, they will only further stagnate. But with WA Strong, we can provide local governments the cash they need to make those projects a reality in the short-term.

Here are just a handful of potential examples: [10]

  • Installing energy efficient HVAC systems in public schools and hospitals, leading to cost savings and improved air quality (a necessity in the era of Covid[11])
  • Expanding broadband to improve access to online education and working from home, reducing the need to drive and creating more resilient systems in cases of emergency lockdowns
  • Restoring forestlands to reduce the risk and intensity of forest fires, improving ecosystem resiliency and reducing days with poor AQI ratings[12]
  • Expanding transit services to provide more low-cost options for mobility and to reduce the need for more cars on the road
  • Rolling out more charging stations for electric vehicles

In other words, these are projects that will pay dividends in terms of health, quality of life, economic resiliency, and climate. And that’s just a small sample of what we could do.

 

Demand what is necessary

The Washington Strong Act would help us meet our climate goals, create tens of thousands of jobs, help address new and long-standing inequities, and improve public health. This is a climate bill, yes, but it does so much more. Investing in a green recovery is exactly what we need to do to in this moment. It’s necessary for our economic recovery and resiliency. It’s necessary for our environmental recovery and resiliency. In the words of Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash, “In your demands and your vision, don’t lead with what is possible in today’s reality but with what is necessary.”  Why should we settle for less? Why should we wait? It’s time we demand what’s necessary. Contact  your legislators to let them know you want a green recovery for Washington.

Want to do even more? Email Emily Knudsen, Chair of the 37th LD Environment and Climate Caucus, Emily.pco1944(at)gmail.com.

Want to learn more? Review these additional resources, this Seattle Times article, and this Sightline article for more details.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/12/14/world/covid-19-coronavirus

[2] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-12-17/southern-california-out-of-icu-beds-amid-covid-19-surge; https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/12/virus-mutation-catastrophe/617531/; https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-raffensperger-call-georgia-vote/2021/01/03/d45acb92-4dc4-11eb-bda4-615aaefd0555_story.html; https://time.com/5924290/covid-food-insecurity-biden-help/ (and I’ll stop there, but there’s plenty more to point to, sadly.)

[3] https://frontandcentered.org/just-transition-not-cap-trade-will-advance-climate-justice/

[4] https://housedemocrats.wa.gov/lekanoff/2020/12/07/lekanoff-shewmake-and-lovelett-announce-the-washington-strong-recovery-bond-program/

[5] https://climate-xchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Building-Back-Better-Investing-in-a-Resilient-Recovery-for-Washington-State-Website.pdf

[6]https://www.doh.wa.gov/DataandStatisticalReports/WashingtonTrackingNetworkWTN/InformationbyLocation/WashingtonEnvironmentalHealthDisparitiesMap

[7] https://allinforwa.org/article/history-washington-states-tax-code

[8] The form of the price doesn’t matter. If it’s cap and trade or a tax, it’s still an extra cost.

[9] https://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=70A.45.020

[10] Criteria for projects are being developed by the WA State Academy of Sciences. The projects must have a demonstrable, positive climate impact.

[11] https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/school-ventilation-must-be-addressed-reopening-plans

[12] https://pscleanair.gov/165/About-the-Air-Quality-Index