Climate on the 2018 Ballot: What Can We Learn?

Last week showed us the fossil fuel industry’s power to crush ballot measures. Still, there are lessons to learn about how to tweak climate politics strategy in other states and possibly for the federal level.

Photo by  Sebastian Pichler .

While most of the nation’s attention Tuesday was focused on electoral races, climate hawks were eying a different type of result: direct ballot initiatives. In a handful of states—prominently, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida—some form of climate policy was on the ballot. What can we learn from the results of these initiatives about the current condition of climate politics?

Let’s begin with the main lesson, centered around the night’s biggest disappointment. The voters of  Washington state, historically a bastion of liberalism and environmentalism, resoundly rejected (56-44%) one of the most comprehensive climate policy plans ever put before an electorate. Initiative 1631 would have placed a price on carbon, using the resulting revenue to invest in clean energy and environmental justice programs. It had a broad coalition of groups on the left behind it, representing people of color, labor unions, low-income families, and more. If passed, it would have set a precedent for other blue states looking for a political pathway to effective climate policy. From a coalition-building standpoint, the strategy of I-1631’s champions could not have been more inclusive.

So, why did I-1631 fail? Well, let’s start with the obvious: the fossil fuel industry hated it. And because special interests can spend unlimited money in elections, direct ballot initiatives are notoriously vulnerable to outside influence. In this case, the industry’s massive spending likely shifted public opinion in their favor, especially suburban voters who lean Republican and are particularly sensitive to seeing their gasoline and home energy bills increase. As the Washington state legislature has also been unsuccessful in its moderate attempts to reduce fossil fuel consumption, resorting to ballot measures made at least some strategic sense. When one side of a policy issue has such a strong money advantage, however, on the margins we’d expect legislative campaigns for climate policy to be more successful than ballot initiatives.

Overall, the 56-44% loss of I-1631 shows us that Big Oil can and will crush any direct ballot proposal that they can successfully frame as an energy price increase (independent of the benefits of investing the revenue, reducing emissions, etc.) -- regardless of the degree to which such a policy will actually impact energy costs. Considering the favorable political territory of Washington state, moreover, the prospects for successful carbon pricing ballot measures in other states look even more grim.

However, we shouldn’t completely write off the policy design accompanying this policy package, as one virtue of the I-1631 policy choice (government invests revenue in clean energy infrastructure, jobs, and environmental justice) is that broad interest group support may better persuade legislators than voters (directly). This is because legislators, when crafting and voting on bills, are quite attuned to what influential interest groups have to say. So even though voters didn’t listen to the broad coalition in Washington state, a Democratic majority in a state (or federal) legislature may be more responsive when most of their interest group friends are supportive of a policy package, even if swing voters are skeptical. Those swing voters -- likely a big chunk of them living in the suburbs -- are directly susceptible to industry smear campaigns that scare voters into voting with their (perceived) pocketbook.

In sum: when planning for a federal climate policy bill in Congress, there’s still virtue to this “broad benefits-broad coalition” idea. When the costs imposed by a bill are concentrated (e.g., immediately on a massively profitable fossil fuel industry) while the benefits are diffuse (e.g., marginally across a constituency, and across time), the chances of policy achievement are low -- so the more we can create concentrated beneficiaries of a bill (e.g., renewable energy industries, labor unions), the more likely those groups are to fight for it. In Washington state’s case, if you’re thinking the problem was that not enough government revenue (generated through the tax) was directly given back to people -- counteracting (short-term) energy price increases -- well, voters there rejected a form of that “dividend” proposal two years ago.

Elsewhere in the country, there are some more mixed lessons to learn. On renewable energy mandates, one state (Nevada, a state trending more liberal in recent years) did vote to expand (to 50% renewable electricity by 2030), while another state (Arizona, still pretty red) voted against expanding (to 50% by 2050). On policy choices to limit the supply of fossil fuels, the experiences were also mixed. Colorado’s ballot question to drastically limit oil and gas drilling in the state failed, while Florida voters agreed to ban offshore drilling. Portland’s new 1% business tax -- resulting in about $30 million invested in clean energy jobs -- passed overwhelmingly, which is a creative policy maneuver. Other cities should take note, though this could probably only work in big liberal cities with thriving economies.

An aside: there were a few bright spots among the supply-side ballot measures. Florida’s vote to ban offshore drilling is a great sign, as it exhibits some will to reduce the fossil fuel supply (which is a necessary component of a comprehensive climate policy) and could potentially be borrowed by other states who are looking for policies that have clear, politically attractive co-benefits.

What are the collective lessons from all of these secondary efforts to enact climate policy? First, compared to other climate policies, renewable energy mandates are broadly popular, existing in a whole bunch of states and experiencing continued expansion despite a polarizing states system. Therefore, RE mandates should certainly be considered for both (A) other states looking to make progress on the ballot and (B) federal climate bill ideas. This sort of policy is electorally valuable because it simply aims to boost renewable energy (a wildly popular idea among voters of both parties), so it’s more difficult for opponents to frame it as an energy price increase (though surely the industry will try). The downside of mandates, of course, is that they don’t decrease fossil fuel usage in sectors besides electricity, such as heating, agriculture, and transportation. As climate policy, therefore, they are hardly comprehensive.

Second, given the opinions of the Supreme Court about money in politics, the influence of Big Oil and other industry allies is here to stay. (Some fruitful avenues for reform here include building support for public campaign funding options like small donor matching programs and “democracy vouchers”, which could make a difference at least in electoral races.) If we assume Big Oil will have its impact on opinions of the public and legislators, to make political progress on the ballot and in legislatures, we must play to our strengths (renewable energy, jobs, infrastructure) while continuing to phase out fossil fuels through back-door measures, making sure energy bills won’t rise enough to crater support.

However, we must also work to change the public sentiment, persuading people that the energy transition cost (potentially involving price increases, at least for those who can better afford it) is most certainly one worth absorbing. At the same time, we must emphasize the benefits of the invested revenue, bring benefits to communities everywhere, both rural and urban. Given that more and more Americans are realizing climate action is way past due, the chance to make such an energy transition as a whole country (compared to one state) may motivate greater collective action compared to voters in one state deciding to go it alone. This aligns with the logic laid out by the Seattle Times, which infamously recommended a “No” vote based on the premise that Washington going in alone on carbon austerity would mean little for the climate.

Finally, while the “broad benefits-broad coalition” strategy was worth trying in Washington state, the odds of persuading voters (particularly suburban ones) in the face of scare campaigns about energy price increases were probably low to begin with. However, this same strategy -- making the benefits of such a bill as concentrated as possible (in constituencies that can be mobilized, and in green industries) -- has some merit to be used in state legislatures and Congress. The success of a broad-based coalition achieving significant decarbonization policy in Illinois, for example, offers a morale-boosting counterexample to Washington’s failure, and deserves closer examination in its own right. Meanwhile, other states should take the examples of successes from the 2018 ballot and run with them.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher

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