The Secret Story of I-1631

Washingtonians are currently voting by mail on I-1631, a carbon emissions fee that would put a price on 80-85% of our state’s emissions and provide funding and incentives for all of us to reduce our contributions to climate change. But we’re not talking “crisis mode” when we communicate about it. We’re pitching it as “cleaning up pollution,” “making big oil pay,” and “investing in green energy jobs,” all of which are part of what the initiative does, but they don’t explain why we *must* take this step this year. Why we should’ve taken it 20 years ago.

The reason for the softening of the I-1631 message is that many people can’t handle the stark, naked truth. And it’s not easy to do so. The footage this week of the sea lapping at the chairs inside Venice cafés is a shocking reminder of how urgent this crisis is. As ice sheets melt and sea levels rise, all coastal cities and low-lying areas such as Skagit County in Washington State are at risk of retreating back into the sea.

We have to ease ourselves into this new reality as we would ease ourselves into cold water during a swim. Dip a toe, an ankle, shout (and swear?) a bit, maybe cry theatrically about how much it hurts. Get up to our midriffs while standing in tiptoes to avoid the full-body shock of cold water. But eventually we just have to jump in, swim vigorously, even dunk our heads under, so we can emerge refreshed and acclimated. Continuing to debate which policy is best while the waters rise is just ludicrous, as sculptor Isaac Cordal shows in his brilliant installations.

drowning politicians discuss global warming

“WA Voters Debate I-1631?” Follow the Leaders installation in Berlin by Isaac Cordal, used with permission

Once you go all the way into the crisis (by reading the UN’s IPCC report, for example), and make peace with it, certain things become clear. Time is very short. Long-term educational goals for your children may not matter. Your career may not matter (you may need it to survive from day to day now, which is a big complication, but really it’s not nearly as important as saving the planet). What matters is becoming a climate warrior and building personal and community resilience. Understanding deep adaptation, something I have just started to explore.

Things need to change in a big way. We cannot buy our way out of this crisis with carbon offsets and reusable bottles and bags (and I admit I’m guilty of suggesting this in many of my prior posts). Our global economy and our identity as consumers must go. Our luxury lifestyles must go. This globalized era is over — in short order, we must stop shopping for goods produced far away and learn to live within our own local ecosystems, restoring as much soil and forest as we can to sequester carbon, cutting our energy use drastically, etc.

I-1631 doesn’t get us nearly all the way there, but it is a real step. It might stop the SUV trend and get people into smaller, more electric cars or onto public transit and bikes. It might make Puget Sound Energy follow take Seattle City Light’s lead and start investing in renewable energy sources instead of burning gas to make electricity. It might give low-income folks the opportunity to insulate their dwellings, move to safer areas, learn the skills we’ll need for the jobs of the future. I hope it does.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Even if I-1631 cannot stop climate change, it can help us get our toes wet, think about what we will wish we had when the cold water is covering more of us. There is no more time for denial. Abstaining from such important votes, or letting destabilizing political parties hang on to their majority are not good options.

Hope can be hard to generate, but I’ve been able to spark some in the voters I’ve talked with. If we invest now in growing Washington’s solar industry, transitioning to cleaner energy jobs, we will be in a stronger position than coal and gas-producing states in the coming years. Solar is a more distributed system – neighborhoods can build resilience through locally generating and storing power. The exceptions to the carbon fee are there because we are not ready to give up concrete and paper and flying (trade-exposed industries that might fail if we overtax them, which would then lead to us having to import those same dirty items at higher carbon cost). But maybe we’ll be ready to give them up soon.

Though we have to give up so much, I believe we will find that we will also regain many benefits of a more natural human existence. I have learned a lot from being part of this campaign, meeting so many climate warriors, and talking to ordinary people who answer when I ring their doorbells. When this is all over (next week!), I want to explore many of these themes in more depth in my blog. But for now, I’ll keep my hope strong that we can get out the vote and take a bold step forward.

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