Why Carbondale’s carbon tax failed

Carbondale_Aeria reducedl

Why voters left the C02 in Carbondale

by Allen Best

It wasn’t even close. Voters in Carbondale, one of the most progressive towns in Colorado said no, absolutely not, to a proposed carbon tax. The vote on April 5 was 637 to 1,022, leaving backers of the tax to think about their miscalculations.

If they had said yes, Carbondale would have been the fourth town or city in the United States to adopt a carbon tax. Boulder, Colo., was first, in 2007, followed by Arcata, Calif., a college town in California, in 2012. Washington D.C. also has a carbon tax.

Proponents don’t think the defeat was catastrophic. “I, in no way, think that (defeat of) the initiative was a bellwether of people’s interest in reducing carbon. There is already one megawatt of solar in this town,” points out Mona Newton, a team member and director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency.

“I just think we miscalculated the timing,” she says.

Context mattered entirely. Voters had been asked to approve a school district tax increase last fall, and they had also approved a fire district mill levy.

Michael Hassig

Michael Hassig

But what ballot proponents hadn’t considered was the timing of property tax valuations, reflecting the rising real estate market. Increases varied anywhere from 40 percent to 70 percent, said Michael Hassig, a former mayor of Carbondale and the campaign committee’s treasurer.

On the same ballot was a town mill levy to increase the mill levy for capital projects in Carbondale.

“A lot of people threw up their hands to say enough is enough,” says Hassig.

Too, while the recession has ended, incomes in Carbondale lag those of a decade ago. Many people in the town are involved in real estate development, and while a few big, eye-opening residential projects have been built in Aspen and Snowmass, it still doesn’t add up for the many architects, contractors, surveyors, and the trades people who call Carbondale home. Hassig himself is an architect.

“I don’t think everybody’s wages have necessarily rebounded,” he says.

The last time a person of median income in Carbondale could afford a home of median value was in 1991, he notes.

“There were pretty strong head winds.”

But the abstraction of Carbondale’s carbon tax  may have been a problem too. The measure proposed to add a levy on electric and natural gas bills. The money would then be used for to boost energy efficiency and, perhaps, renewable energy. The argument was that the taxes would have been small and many of the improvements would have reduced future energy costs.

It was a mix of complexity and vagueness. Just maybe, something important was missing. Instead of logic and abstractions, perhaps the pitch to voters needed concreteness and emotional appeal. Maybe the proposal needed to create images for the mind.

Bob Inglis, the former congressman from South Carolina, was in Boulder, Colo., last week to speak at various forums, including one organized by Citizens Climate Lobby. CCL was organized to push for what members call “carbon fee and dividend,” the idea that money from a carbon tax would be redistributed to taxpayers in reduced payroll or other taxes. Inglis is a major proponent of the tax, but he wasn’t always so.

Bob Inglis

Bob Inglis

Elected to Congress in the 1990s from the “reddest district in our reddest state,” as he likes to say, he religiously voted the conservative Republican orthodoxies. He says that he thought that global warming was a fiction of Al Gore. Not until 2004, when his son, who was then 18, took him aside to explain why, as a Christian, he had a moral obligation, did he start to change his mind. A trip to Antarctica, to study ice cores, and the experience in Australia with the endangered Great Barrier Reef fully convinced him.

He’s become fast friends with at least one climate scientist. “I’d jump off a bridge with him,” said Inglis. But he also has been seared by the blame tactics of what he calls the eco-left. The environmental left tends to use shame. That makes those on the right cranky. They want to hear the language of abundance, of constantly more prosperity. The environmental left talks the language of scarcity and privation.

He also talked about “love,” and said the common ground requires “an awful lot of love and an awful lot of grace.” In other words, you can’t bring blame to a handshake.

But he also had this to say about decision-making and policy: “Poetry precedes policy.” In other words, there must be understanding of the heart and not just the brain.

Inglis recalled a conversation with an acquaintance. “Most decisions are emotional,” Inglis had said, but he was corrected. “ALL decisions are emotional.”

Added Inglis: “Decisions are not rationale—and that is good.”

What does this have to do with Carbondale? An obscure connection, perhaps, but Newton, who was in the audience in Boulder, says she understood what he was saying. After 20 years of trying to do the work of energy efficiency, she gets the need for visual images—which are sometimes difficult for words to invoke.

“This is not easy work,” she says.

Hassig also wonders if another tack might have worked better. “We all know that rather unglamorous solutions are in fact the best dollars to spend, such as on home weatherization and insulation, and replacing outmoded equipment,” he points out. And that, essentially, is what Carbondale proposed.

But maybe, a giant bank of photovoltaic panels should have been the message. Just maybe, you need to have a message that can be compressed into 30 seconds, that can be readily mobilized into people’s imaginations.

If you pore over the reports of climate scientists, despite their careful language, you can get very, very worried. But it’s not yet the equivalent of an attack on Pearl Harbor.

Some years ago now, at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, I asked James Balog, who did the film “Chasing Ice,” what it would take to motivate the change that is needed. The collapse of the West Antarctica ice sheet, he suggested, or a major collapse of the glaciers on Greenland.

But wait – what’s happening in the Arctic Ocean before our very eyes?

Yes, despite Tip O’Neill’s famous comment that all politics is local. That’s the predicament of local jurisdictions trying to adopt carbon taxes. We have a disaster down the road, no, right now in our backyards.

See here for Inglis presentation at the Conference on World Affairs. For Inglis at Citizens Climate Lobby meeting, see here.

Addendum: A Carbondale resident responds

After this story was originally published in the April 10 issue of Mountain Town News, subscriber Patrick Hunter, a resident of Carbondale, responded, in part: “They made every mistake possible. Something like a year ago I said to the reps from CORE/CLEER that this would be a huge deal but it had to be done perfectly to  be successful.

“I said it was essential that the effort not fail because it could be years before it could be tried again. I said it was critical that the community be totally involved in advance; that focus groups would be needed. I said the proposal had to be equitable and clearly defined.  Ideally, the voters would see direct benefits that would be shared equally.  One project was a micro-hydro on a water line coming off the side of Mt. Sopris.”

He added: “I see this over and over.  Some ‘tree hugger’ gets an idea about making it all wonderful; but doesn’t realize that the whole community has to get up to speed. So nothing happens.”

Hunter says Carbondale needs “metrics” that people can see, to measure the efforts at improvements and set realistic targets. To meet the community’s goal of 20 percent reduction in emissions by 2020, he says, Carbondale will need to triple it gains per year as compared to what it has done since 2009.

This post was updated shortly after the original posting to include the above addendum.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
This entry was posted in Carbondale, Climate change, Mountain towns and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why Carbondale’s carbon tax failed

  1. rgath says:

    Lot’s of maybes in this article about why this TAX failed. Here’s my maybe: maybe the folks in Carbondale want to keep their hard earned money.

  2. jan freed says:

    A revenue neutral carbon fee with a dividend, makes enormous sense!
    Economists and scientists say it is the best solution to the threat of our carbon emissions.

    It is not a tax. This way citizens would RECEIVE the carbon fees as a monthly check, for example. That would protect us from price spikes in dirty energy.

Polluters PAY the fees, so it holds fossil fuel corporations responsible for the damages. or externalitites, they cause, hundreds of billions of dollars per year (Harvard School of Medicine).

    It would more rapidly lower emissions than regulations, as happened in BC Canada with a similar, popular policy. BC lowered both emissions and taxes with their fees.
    A study by respected non-partisan Regional Economic Modeling, Inc. found the dividends would help to create 2.9 million additional jobs in 20 years, while reducing emissions much faster than regulations. http://citizensclimatelobby.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/REMI-National-SUMMARY.pdf
    To those who reject the science: perhaps nothing will change your mind. But what have you got against cleaner air, less asthma in our kids, fewer heart attacks, and more money (the dividend) in your pockets?

    To those accepting the science: Any effort to
 limit the problem of climate change is worth it. For example: the cost of sea level rise ALONE is so great that no effort to prevent it is unwarranted.

    Why even bother with the paid deniers and front groups who thrive creating the delay of a false debate?

    Elon Musk was asked “what can we do? ” Musk: “I would say whenever you have the opportunity, talk to the politicians. Ask them to enact a carbon tax. We have to fix the unpriced externality [social cost]. I would talk to your friends about it and fight the propaganda from the carbon industry.”

    • rg says:

      Sounds good, but the problem is in the details. You have to believe that the government will manage this fairly. Remember “if you like your plan you can keep your plan”? That’s government. Obamacare has been unmasked as a wealth distribution scheme. A carbon tax will be the same.
      Want to do something about emissions? I can’t help but notice that earth’s population has doubled in my lifetime, thanks to the Third World, which will gift us with another 3-5 billion people this century. If we’re going to destroy the middle class in this country, maybe we could require population control in the Third World. Somehow this is never part of the discussion.

    • rg says:

      “The measure proposed to add a levy on electric and natural gas bills.” How is this NOT a tax. Where, in the article, do the “citizens…RECEIVE the carbon fees as a monthly check……”? Liberal obfuscation.

  3. Erica says:

    Correction to the second paragraph: As of this writing, DC does not have a carbon tax. There is an effort to pass one though (“fee and rebate,” specifically): http://chesapeakeclimate.org/dc-federal/a-dc-carbon-fee-for-clean-energy-and-a-fair-economy/

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