If You Care About Climate Change, Don’t Listen to Cliff Mass, Vote Yes on 1631
Washington voters who open their voting guides will be in for a surprise when they see a lone atmospheric scientist standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Big Oil to oppose Initiative 1631 — a plan to make polluters pay for their pollution, and invest in clean energy and clean air, clean water and vibrant forests, and healthy and resilient communities.
That lone scientist is Cliff Mass, the controversial UW weatherman. Big Oil is using him as a prop in their messaging to claim that they have scientific support, he is their token scientist. However, as this article explains, Cliff’s opposition stems from an inaccurate analysis of 1631, and is grounded not so much in science, but rather in a narrow anti-government ideology which was revealed when, for instance, Cliff compared Native Tribes, communities of color and unions to pigs for advocating for public investments in their communities.
Those who care for Washington communities, clean energy, clean air, and climate change aren’t buying Cliff and Big Oil’s arguments, and it’s because they’re mostly bad (already debunked) arguments. Over two hundred scientists, health, policy and social science experts have endorsed 1631, including Nobel Prize winners, NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal recipients, and numerous health associations, like the King County Medical Society, the Puget Sound Asthma Coalition, and the Washington State Medical Association.
Over 400 local organizations, communities, and businesses are supporting 1631 too. Groups such as the UW’s Academic Student Employees Union, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, League of Women Voters, UFCW 21, PCC Farm Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and the Latino Community Fund. We could continue listing supporting organizations for a long time, because 1631 supporters represent the broadest initiative coalition in Washington’s history — as opposed to the $26 million No Campaign which is 99,5% funded by a handful of big oil companies like Chevron, BP and the Koch Brothers.
Not only is Cliff deeply outnumbered, his arguments are also weak, wildly exaggerated, often inaccurate, and if successful would lead to climate inaction and rob Washington’s most needy communities of much needed funding.
Analysis of Initiative 1631 shows that if it is passed it will likely reduce as much if not more climate change causing carbon pollution than 2016’s failed carbon tax proposal, Initiative 732, which Cliff previously endorsed. Facts and economic modelling be damned, Cliff makes exaggerated claims like 1631 will be “totally ineffective helping us deal with climate change”.
In his (certainly not peer-reviewed) blog, Cliff inaccurately draws on analysis by Carbon Washington, the non-profit behind I-732, to say that 1631 will do less than 732 would have to reduce carbon pollution. He does so by ignoring the fact that 1631 will invest billions in clean energy. If we incorporate the impacts of those investments, then 1631 gradually outpaces 732 in reducing carbon pollution, according to the very same analysis Cliff drew on, but either intentionally distorted or failed to understand.
So, on the question of how 1631 will affect climate change, the only issue Cliff is somewhat relevantly qualified to speak on, he is both inconsistent and wrong.
Cliff’s blogs show that his opposition to 1631 is based more on narrow anti-government ideology than it is in science. 1631 is a policy which aims to fund investments in renewable energy, clean air and water, resilient forests, healthy communities, and a just transition away from fossil fuels. For Cliff though, those advocating for investments in Washington’s communities and environment are merely “selfish” (as opposed seemingly to the selfless oil companies Cliff is working with).
In his most recent blog, Cliff compares tribal nations, communities of color, and laborers to pigs for asking for investments in their communities. It’s a disturbing, callous and arguably racist analogy, which fails to recognize how these communities are so often overlooked and underfunded in Washington. It also fails to see how these investments are grounded in principles of climate justice, ensuring that those who are most impacted by pollution, climate change, and the transition away from fossil fuels are not left behind.
Cliff’s sad world-view reduces advocates for public investment to mere special interests, the radical left, and greedy pigs, rather than seeing Washington’s beautiful and diverse people and communities, from across the political spectrum, working together to make polluters pay for their pollution so they can invest in solutions, in their communities, and in a just transition away from fossil fuels.
Cliff’s recurring argument against 1631 is that the initiative is too vague in how it will invest its revenue, even though it clearly specifies that a Public Oversight Committee should oversee that the revenue is 70% invested in clean energy and clean air, 25% in clean water and healthy forests, and 5% to prepare communities for challenges caused by climate change. Of that funding, 15% should address the energy burden of poor households, 10% goes to support Tribal nations, 35% to environmental justice, and about $12 million per year to help displaced fossil-fuel workers.
That seems quite specific to us, but Cliff wants a project by project break down, which is a laughable demand of a ballot initiative. We’d like to see him fit a comprehensive, multi-decade, state-wide spending plan for a carbon fee on the back of the A3 boards you need to fit the entire language of a ballot initiative on. It’s just not feasible, and not wise either, for we would hardly want to shackle the investments we want to make over the next few decades based on the limits of our current imagination and technology. That’s why the initiative delegates the task of overseeing investments to a 15-person public oversight board with several careful checks and balances that would ensure rigorous implementation, as well as accountability and public involvement.
Of course, we must ensure proper oversight and that is the role of the legislature. In word’s of the Carbon Washington team, “Opponents exaggerate in stating that the oversight board will waste the money and succumb to self-dealing. Proponents exaggerate in saying that this is an apolitical board with ample oversight… We agree with the Tacoma News Tribune that, ‘Legislators must take a strong hand with the oversight board’. The board will need scrutiny, but the public and the legislature can provide it.” And the legislature has proven effective in providing such oversight before.
As the Nature Conservancy highlights in their explanation of how the board works, “This oversight board is not a new practice for Washington — that’s how our government works. Legislators rely on experts and community members to implement many state goals. A good example is the Workforce Training Board. It’s made up of representatives from business, labor and educational institutions and oversees about $1.5 billion in state spending a year”. The Workforce Training Board works, providing a clear counter-example to the anti-government fear-mongering of people like Cliff — as does Cliff’s own employer, the University of Washington, whose billions of dollars in annual spending is overseen by a Governor appointed board.
Cliff also argues that 1631 puts forward too many exemptions for the wrong groups. But, as has been pointed out time and time again, 1631 covers the vast majority (~80%) of the carbon polluters in the state — making it one of the broadest carbon prices in the world. It was smartly designed to create exemptions for industries that are either closing down already, like the Centralia Coal plant, or that are energy intensive and trade exposed (EITE). EITE exemptions make sense because we don’t simply want to push trade exposed emitters and their jobs out of state where they might pollute even more. Instead we should phase in the tax on them as other jurisdictions start to act too.
Finally, Cliff argues that 1631 will hurt the poor as a carbon fee is regressive, meaning lower income people pay a higher proportion of their income to carbon taxes than rich people do. While this is true of a carbon price by itself, 1631 addresses this by ensuring that 15% of funding goes to address the energy burden of poor households. As the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights, “the proposal specifically provides for a subset of funds to be used to ensure low-income populations are not left worse off because of the rule. This is to be achieved through investments that lower energy burdens, such as energy efficiency, weatherization, and transit projects, as well as through direct support like bill assistance by providing utility bill rebates”.
Of course, Washington has to do more to address the impacts of its regressive tax structure, but it’s unrealistic to expect a climate policy to fix that and to do everything that 1631 does. In addition to its relief for low income households, it also provides investments in low income communities, in communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change, and funding for a just transition for fossil fuel workers. 1631 does a lot to ensure that the burdens of climate change, pollution and the transition away from fossil fuels do not fall on those who can least afford it. That’s largely as a result of the fact that both the Washington State Labor Council and Front and Centered, a coalition of over 60 groups who represent communities of color and low-income communities, were part of the coalition that crafted 1631.
Cliff’s Not So Bright Solution
Cliff’s solution to climate change is to kill 1631 now so that we can try put forward a climate policy that panders to the right by being revenue neutral, like Initiative 732…which Washington State already tried, and it already failed. I-732 failed to pass in Washington’s legislature, like all meaningful climate policy over the decades, hence why it went to the ballot.
732 also failed to win voter support on the ballot, by a large 18-point margin. We should know, we served on the Steering Committee of Carbon Washington, which put forward 732, and though we worked darn hard on it, the policy just was not popular enough to succeed, not by a long shot, whereas 1631, which Carbon Washington supports, might just be popular enough to pass.
Cliff’s theory of change is like that of a spoiled toddler. If he just bangs his fists on the table and shouts loud enough about his favorite small government solution for long enough, then somehow the Washington legislature and the people of Washington will magically get on board.
That’s not how political change works. It is about working together to craft policies that are popular and effective, and building the political power and alliances needed to get them passed. That’s the hard work that 1631 supporters have done, and which Cliff is jeopardizing by lending his voice to Big Oil’s no campaign.
1631 is a strong and effective policy which will make polluters pay, and invest in renewable energy, clean air and water, resilient forests, healthy communities, and a just transition away from fossil fuels. Is 1631 perfect? No, it isn’t, but no climate policy is. 732 certainly wasn’t either, far from it, yet Cliff threw his weight wholeheartedly behind it.
Rather than advocating against action in favor of a climate strategy which already failed, we are working with the broadest coalition in Washington’s history to pass a powerful climate policy, because the science is telling us we don’t have time to wait, especially not to wait for solutions like Cliff’s which have little chance of passing any time soon — that’s probably why Big Oil likes him so much.
Cliff seems to imagine himself as a heroically independent authority — the defender of the truth correcting group think. The irony is that his error-ridden and over-simplified analyses are making him a willing tool in the propaganda of the most powerful and polluting industries on the planet. He is playing his part well by giving a legitimizing face to Big Oil’s campaigns to halt any action. Of course, Cliff says he has “nothing to do with big oil” and he most likely isn't directly financially benefiting from his opposition to the initiative, but you don’t have to sell your soul to the devil if you’re willing to do his work for free.
Ben Silesky is the former field manager for Carbon Washington. Alex Lenferna, who served as the lead author, is a Fulbright Scholar, Ph.C. and lecturer at the University of Washington focusing on environmental and climate ethics.
Both served on the steering committee of Carbon Washington which put forward Initiative 732. Views expressed here are the authors only.