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Populist buzzsaw puts Democrats on the defensive on climate

1 month ago 68

Leaders across the continent who have embraced aggressive climate policies are facing a political backlash as the programs drive up the cost of electricity, home heating and even ordinary goods.

In New York, Washington, Pennsylvania and California — and even Canada — concerns about the costs of curbing greenhouse gas emissions are fueling voter revolts and prompting some liberals to scale back or reframe their own climate ambitions.

Take Washington, where the state’s year-old program is facing a November ballot initiative that would halt the effort, which aims to reduce the state's net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. The ballot initiative is backed by a conservative hedge fund manager.

Washington’s cap-and-trade program “doesn't do anything other than make gasoline and groceries and eating more expensive,” Brian Heywood, the ballot measure’s sponsor, said in an interview. “I call it the, ‘Hey, just buy a Tesla, bro,’ mentality.”

Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee — one of the country’s foremost champions of aggressively combating climate change — is unrepentant. “This is a fight worth having,” he said in an interview. "Bring it on."

The last time Congress considered putting a price on carbon, it sparked a major backlash that contributed to Democrats losing the House and left them with enduring political scars. State leaders are again testing the willingness of American voters to embrace aggressive tactics that will help fight climate change — while also costing everyone more money.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already discovered what a potent issue carbon pricing has become: The liberal leader’s reelection bid is in jeopardy due, in part, to an April 1 hike to the nationwide carbon tax that's sparked protests and widespread opposition.

Now governors are facing some of the same blowback. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro last month bowed to opposition from Republicans, labor groups and fossil fuel interests to the Northeast's carbon pricing program and proposed his ownin-state carbon cap instead, drawing immediate fire from both parties and doubts it can pass a divided Legislature.

And New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, amid growing pushback from the state’s business community, is considering neutering her nascent program in self-defense. She's proposed a price cap so low that it wouldn't spur enough reductions to ensure New York hits its 2030 emissions target of 40 percent below 1990 levels.

“Cost is one of those things that ultimately could defeat the effort,” said former New York Department of Environmental Conservation head Basil Seggos, who stepped down earlier this month after a nearly 9-year tenure. “The governor ... wants to see a program that's affordable.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (from left) signs a climate agreement with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and British Columbia Premier John Horgan. Officials are now wondering if they failed to tout the benefits of carbon pricing enough.

Momentum for carbon pricing — touted as the most economically efficient way to address climate change — has been long in coming. The last time Congress seriously considered putting a price on carbon emissions was 15 years ago.

But since then, the concept, which requires high-emitting businesses to either buy carbon credits at state-run auctions or pay a set fee per ton of carbon emissions, has quietly been gaining steam. Programs in California, Canada and the Northeast have raised some $25 billion for state coffers since 2005. Washington's has raised $2 billion since it started last year. New York's economy-wide cap would start in 2025.

Inslee wants to link his program with California's and Quebec's, which would make North America's largest carbon market even bigger. Some 1,000 companies' industrial emissions are covered across all of the continent's programs.

“This is very important from a national perspective,” Inslee said. “We've taken a step forward. The nation shouldn't go backwards, and we need to extend our measures nationwide.”

Officials are now wondering if they failed to tout the benefits enough.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is highlighting a twice-yearly credit on residents' utility bills, which redistributes some of the auction proceeds.

"I haven't seen a lot of headlines, but a $146 rebate went to all ratepayers in terms of their electric bill to offset those costs," he said last week. "We have to be more mindful, I think, than we even have in the past of the stacking of costs at a precious and important time."

In Canada, support for carbon pricing — Trudeau's signature policy — has eroded as high interest rates and cost of living concerns have dominated. The pushback has put Trudeau, with sinking popularity, on the defensive: His own Liberals have exempted home heating oil from the fuel charge and are selling the policy’s rebate checks as an affordability measure rather than a climate program.

And Canada’s left-leaning New Democratic Party, in a surprise move, recently walked back its support for the Trudeau government’s consumer fuel charge, suggesting there are more effective policies to fight climate change.

Meanwhile, rival Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is betting long-tail rage over the carbon tax can help his party win the next election, to be held by October of next year — and finally oust Trudeau from office.

“There's a lot of political pressure. I'm certainly feeling it; everyone should be feeling it by folks out there who are worried about affordability, who are worried about climate change,” Trudeau told reporters earlier this month.

A worker stands on a steam-assisted gravity drainage pad at Cenovus' Sunrise oil facility. In Canada, support for carbon pricing has eroded as high interest rates and cost of living concerns have dominated.

But the most high-profile carbon pricing fight is taking place in Washington.

Gas prices have soared in Washington to about $1 above the national average and higher than neighboring Oregon, according to AAA, though Inslee's office disputes that all of the spike is tied to the cap-and-trade program. A poll conducted last month of 600 registered Washington voters found 53 percent support the effort to end cap and trade, with a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.

State lawmakers amended the program last month to give farmers and truckers a rebate to ease the costs of fuel surcharges. But it’s not nearly enough to mollify opponents.

Heywood is making an argument that industry has made in the past — but mainstream business may not be with him. Amazon, Microsoft and even oil giant BP are helping defend Washington's law, the campaign announced — though Mark Prentice, a campaign spokesperson, declined to disclose how much money the companies have donated prior to next month's campaign finance filing deadline. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has also donated $1 million.

BP, which had previously opposed a carbon tax proposal in the state, said it was on board with the current program “because it is an economy-wide, market-based program that can help lower carbon emissions, attract innovation, and create clean energy investment and jobs in Washington.”

Inslee pointed to the positive health impacts that stem from a carbon cap and the projects the revenues have funded, like bus electrification. But Heywood said voters are feeling the crunch.

“It doesn't do anything really other than make some people feel good to address carbon dioxide output,” he said. “And it's doing it enormously off the backs of the working class and the working poor.”

Anne C. Mulkern contributed to this report.

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