Lobby Day: Carbon WA

 

On the 22nd of February I participated in Carbon WA’s lobby day. The day started out at 8:30 am driving a carpool down to our meeting spot at private home which has been nicknamed “The Castle.” Upon arrival we were given pamphlets covering topics such as: How to be a lobbyist? Lobby day FAQ’s for legislators and fiscal estimates for I-732. With this information in hand, along with a cup of coffee and croissant, I and the rest of district 36, marched on the capitol.

Our first rendezvous was at 10:45 am with Senator Reuven Carlyle. The meeting kicked off with a swift introduction and recap of I-732, of which Senator Carlyle was quite familiar with. Despite his concern for the environment and a carbon tax law (of some kind) Senator Carlyl was not so enthusiastic about the revenue and fiscal implications of the bill. The main sticking point was the financials would not be back by any republicans and thus that the bill would die in the Senate and thus would not himself endorse it. These conversation sticking points, revolving around financials, were largely fielded by Joe Ryan, co-chair of Carbon WA, due to his knowledge of the complex nature of the topic. After all was said and done Senator Carlyle acknowledged that this was, in the end, an “intra-family squabble” and that the grass roots efforts of Carbon WA, and its public awareness, was to be lauded.

Our second meeting came quickly after, without a minute to spare. We met with freshman Representative Noel Frame at 11:45 am promptly. Our reception was even less warm than at with Senator Carlyle. Although Representative Frame was very engaged in the conversation, her position is a largely formed and follows, “…the expertise of her senior colleagues.” Representative  Frame stated that she came into her position with K-12 being at the center of her attention.  She was quite adamant that she wanted to avoid being involved in subjects that she was not familiar with and thus would not endorse the carbon tax. Representative Frame also concluded that even if she did support it that nothing would come of it. Although Representative Frame was obstinate to the matter we appreciated her candidness and that her ultimate decision was not formed by platitudes.

Our third, and last, meeting was with Representative Gael Tarleton. This was a completely different experience which began with the introduction of ourselves, a bit of our background, and why we support the carbon tax. I introduced myself as a graduate student at the University of Washington studying architecture and that our program was heavily vested in sustainable design where we are exploring new materials, such as CLT, which can replace concrete. Concrete, which is often used in vast quantities in construction, has a large carbon footprint and a relatively low recyclability. Using materials such as steel and CLT, in favor of concrete, allows for far more efficient material recycling and could provide local jobs and lower transportation emissions if sourced locally. To our surprise Representative Tarleton was quite familiar with CLT and was pushing for its use as she was previously on the “House Technology & Economic Development Committee.” The rest of the time was spent by her expressing frustration with the myopic nature of people trying to curb the effects of climate change (such as increased forest fires) without addressing the larger issue. Representative Tarleton finished by stating that she would endorse the bill and that noticed that the presidential election cycle will allow a large portion of voters to be exposed to the carbon tax that would otherwise not be due to voter apathy.

All-in-all this was an enlightening experience. Getting to know the real workings of the local government and how approachable our representatives are was -dare I say it- a lot of fun. Despite being somewhat unfamiliar with Carbon WA and unable to defend the the intricacies that have gone into the initiative. But just the act of showing up and supporting the cause, as an educated citizen, cannot be understated. Even if I-732 does not pass, our local government is well aware of how much the citizens of Washington care about this issue, and that is the most important thing.

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Different solutions to a common issue

Early this fall, Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency for homelessness in Seattle. In response to this declaration, additional funding has been granted to publically funded organizations such as Mary’s Place, located at the heart of downtown Seattle. It’s great to see the Mayor take action to alleviate the need by increasing the number of beds in Seattle (this is just one example, you can find the full proposed investment here), but I have actually been more impressed with privately funded efforts in the area; specifically the coordination between Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and New Horizons to open a new overnight youth shelter. The only privately-funded young adult shelter in Washington provides an alternative to the conventional public approach and shows us why different  participants can work together to address a multi-faceted issue.

I actually work at this new shelter and to be honest, didn’t quite know the difference between other organizations. As I began to work overnight shifts, I began to hear a common trend from the guests; they are fully aware of their options, but choose where they stay each night based on the “vibe” of the shelter and organization. Certain cliques or groups of young adults stay at different organizations and having another option for people helps remove tension between groups and individuals. People who might otherwise worry about who they sleep next to in the shelter have the freedom to process through other aspects of their life such as drug use, unemployment, housing and whatnot.

Our group in this course has touched on the necessity of choice in decision-making and I have observed firsthand its positive impact within the context of homelessness in Seattle. Subtle differences in staff structure, organizational approaches and implementation of facilities and programming make a difference. Certain young adults have consistently come back by choice because of how their needs are met. This is not to say that one organization is doing a better job than the other. Differences in preference are to be celebrated; this provides more opportunities to help support young adults work towards their goals and encourage healthy living. Standardization is convenient- you can predict the outcome and have more control over the process, but diversity matches the characteristics of the challenge at hand. You are more likely to meet the needs of the population you are serving when your solutions are as different and unique as the people they look to help.

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Modular Homes a Necessary, Scalable, Green Alternative

Modular, prefab residences often have a negative stigma attached to them. This is probably due to the fact that people tend to associate the idea of them with mobile homes or trailer parks. Another reason they may suffer from negative perceptions is the assumed lack of customization opportunities. The word “prefab” immediately evokes an image of sterile, factory production lines producing replicas of the same monotonous product. But actually, these are huge misconceptions. Modular homes are typically more affordable than conventional housing, but can be made of very high quality materials and be quite beautifully done – at a savings to the consumer. They come in many different shapes, sizes and forms, and many can be customized by color or design accents.

Additionally, they offer huge potential for energy savings and overall carbon emissions. Since they are prefabricated in a factory setting, companies have more control over minimizing or finding ways to recycle waste products. Since they are unexposed to the elements during construction, it is much easier to ensure that they are built soundly and efficiently. They typically have higher levels of insulation in comparison with conventionally built homes, meaning less heat or air conditioning is lost through inefficient construction connections.

With additional sustainable energy harnessing components, modular housing has the potential to be so efficiently built that they are actually carbon positive, producing energy to sell back to the grid. This presents a win-win, merging economic and environmental benefits. Archiblox, an Australian modular construction company, has been a trailblazer in this industry, and currently has a prototype of a modular home that actually produces more energy than it utilizes. Some local Seattle design firms are working on similar models that can be scaled and used for apartments, offices and retail. Modular homes are a valuable tool that should be used going forward to reduce our built environment’s carbon footprint and encourage alternative energy usage, but more work needs to be done to put them on the center stage as a viable tool for wide scale development.

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More research and development needs to go into making these types of designs and technologies mainstream and destigmatized to the average homebuyer and developer. Greater awareness of and exposure to the types of modern modular housing available will help to ease any qualms about the quality of the product. Offering some level of customization will help to increase the brand of the product so that consumers don’t regard them as homogenous, “processed” products. Governments locally, nationally and abroad, need to ensure that infrastructure can accommodate alternative energy flowing back into the grid, to maximize the potential for excess energy sales, making this type of development a more economically convincing product. If we can increase the amount of modular housing in our housing stock, particularly the type that are energy independent and actually pump more energy back into the grid, cities and individuals will have a better chance of reducing their carbon footprint.

How to help Carbon Washington win the bill?

Yesterday, I had the interesting experience of heading down to Olympia to meet with legislators at Washington State Capitol. I went with Carbon Washington, an organization actively promoting Initiative 732. I-732 is a bill that would add a tax on carbon emission and reduce sales tax, keeping the tax revenue neutral. It is a grassroots initiative started by economists and environmentalists. The theme of this initiative came across as so attractive to average citizens who care about the environment that my immediate response was: “Why not? I support this. If this is adding a tax burden to certain companies, then it’s a natural way to push the innovation and efficient operation of their business.”

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I was impressed by the people who are actively working on this bill to help improve the environment, but it made me wonder about ways that they can ensure that this bill will pass.

 

The median voter theorem states “a majority rule voting system will select the outcome most preferred by the median voter.” Like in every voting scenario, there will be two parties both arguing their position, and there will be people in the middle who haven’t formed a strong opinion on either side.

 

The first thing required to convince median voters to vote for the bill is awareness of the issue. For example, I did not know about Initiative 732 before this class. Since this bill is something that will help not only the current generation but also future generations, they should engage more young people. Actively working on social media is a good way to approach younger generations. The Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the most successful examples of using social media to help make people aware of a cause, in this case, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Carbon Washington can imitate that kind of action and spread the message on social media by doing some interesting promotions. This will catch the attention of median voters, without requiring much cost.

 

Next, how can we let median voters help Carbon Washington? The solution is to make the effort easy. I believe that the median voters Carbon Washington should target for this particular issue are working people, who don’t have too much to gain or lose with the proposed political and economic changes the bill would bring forth, but who care about the environment in the long run. Not everyone can dedicate their time and energy to going down to Olympia to talk to their legislators to influence decisions. But anyone can easily send an email to his or her legislators to express their support. It will only take one or two minutes. Carbon Washington could encourage those that saw the social media post to simply send an email to their legislator to support it. By doing this in volume, it can certainly help to achieve Carbon Washington’s goal and help everyone get a chance to make the world a little bit better.

 

opposing the carbon tax

Sometimes the best way to defeat an opponent is to fully understand their belief or ideology in order to point out the flaws.

After reading literature on the proponents of taxing carbon in Washington, I’m convinced of the benefits. (I will say I had a small amount of previous knowledge about the idea of taxing carbon from my time abroad.) I hope putting an overview of I-732 next to pieces of the opposition will highlight misconceptions or details of interest.

OVERVIEW

The carbon tax currently at the state legislature, proposed by CarbonWA, is Initiative 732, which is modeled after British Colombia’s carbon tax. Like British Colombia, Washington’s bill would include a reduction in (sales) tax replaced by a tax per ton on carbon that is gradually increased until reaching the end goal. The hope with both taxes is to effectively, immediately start cutting back on the burning of carbon-emitting non-renewable resources. Although the current prime minister and some industries are indifferent, British Colombia’s tax is seen as somewhat successful. CarbonWA’s proposed tax would include provide rebates to lower-income households, effectively taxing them less than those above 400,000.

OPPOSITION

The biggest opposition seems to be calling I-732 not revenue-neutral, meaning it would not increase or decrease taxes (“Northwest Progressive Institute”). There have been multiple groups/organizations, nonpartisan and partisan, who have run analyses, both coming to different outcomes; CarbonWA states those analyses of lost revenue come from the an incorrect observation on the Working Families Rebate. The Working Families Rebate, passed in 2008, produced a non-funded tax cut never implemented; the rebate would work to “offset the costs of a necessary revenue increase for lower income working families” (Budget and Policy). CarbonWA’s proposal would shift revenue gained from its taxes to fund the Working Families Rebate. Conservative legislators see this as a loss of funds,’ even though there was technically no funds lost if they were not there in the first place?

The same sources above also believe the bill to be ‘poorly written’ and do not seem to be fans of the leader of CarbonWA, Yoram Bauman. They poke fun at Bauman on record saying that the price of gas would increase; except, obviously, the price of gas would increase if the supplier (those emitting tons of carbon) were now being taxed? The point of the tax is to cut emissions, which cannot be done if people are willing to continually pay a lower amount on fuel.

The opposition seems to be more in favor of a cap-and-trade system, like California, versus a carbon tax. The cap-and-trade system would limit the emissions over time, with more payments coming from those would emit more. The Environmental Defense Fund sees the ‘trade’ part of this as a way to investment and innovation. The cap-and-trade system, which I have not delved into at this time, seems to be very similar to making those pay per ton emitted, but with an obvious limit by the ‘cap’ in cap-and-trade system. Cap and trade sounds great on paper, but I believe the ‘cap’ to be fictitious; I believe just like taxing per ton, there will be companies that can afford to pay the fees associated with producing more emissions. The cap and trade system emits a well-liked proposal because the amount ‘fined’ is not directly applied; the amount fined is only happening when one goes over the cap.

These sources highlight that the legislature is looking to make the issue of taxing carbon become aligned with the political parties in the United States. Most notably, last month the Washington State Democratic Party stated on record they are opposed to CarbonWA’s tax proposal. The more conservative side will always be against more taxes, historically. And, if only continuing to vote in a dominant two-party system, there will be more voters against the tax if both ‘sides’ are not showing full support.

CONCLUSION

In summary, there is no complete summary. More time is needed to completely find out the initial, hidden reasoning behind not supporting I-732; it seems there are underlying issues and hidden agendas within the opposition, while the supporters and CarbonWA just want to do something to drastically cut carbon emissions.

Can you imagine a world in the far future where we cannot rely on the taxation of carbon to sustain our tax system? This could be a reality if the CarbonWA tax is established to help drastically cut down on non-renewable resource usage. If others can do it, couldn’t the state of Washington?

Keeping Frameworks Fluid

Jumping off of what we briefly heard about in class last week, this post will be about organizational frameworks and how to disrupt them fluid for the sake of progress. By now we should all understand the role that frameworks play in business and operations. In many ways they’re needed to provide order and guide users through a proven procedure. Most people desire the comfort and stability that good frameworks offer. Unfortunately as we get more and more comfortable with a framework we become less inclined to change it. Well if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? This approach may be fine in many situations but our society and our businesses are alive and changing; and a framework that does not change with the times, is broken.

The three keys that were mentioned last week to keep frameworks fluid were (1) be fearless, (2) be imaginative and communicative, and (3) make relationships outside of your work circle. All of these are good. The way I see it the first leads to opportunity, the second to creation, and the last to influence and stability. But I believe there is another equally necessary skill and that is the ability to empathize.

What I mean in this sense is not just to feel good or bad for others when they feel good or bad. It’s more about feeling and thinking like others so you can modify frameworks to serve more than just yourself – and for the record, when I say “you,” I mean not only an individual but also a group, business, etc. What I tend to see happen is we become stagnant, complacent, and overconfident as a result of establishing a comfortable framework.

Take our government as an example of a framework that is intended to maintain order. It was established more than 200 years ago, and although it is not a perfect system it has worked for us since then. But it has not been stagnant. As time marched on we added, removed, and amended laws for the sake of meeting our society’s current needs. Frameworks, no matter how good, should stay flexible. Empathizing – considering their effects as well as affects – will prompt you to actively think about how well a framework is serving its purpose and therefore keep it fluid.

Best before date…

When I was in undergrad, I would occasionally visit the coffee shop that was nestled in between the Engineering building and the Physics building.  On one of my visits, towards the end of the day, I noticed that the staff put leftover donuts and pastries in a clear plastic bag.  Intrigued by this, I asked what they were going to do with the unsold food.  They said that they were going to throw it away, as was customary each day for the cafe.  Being on a budget and loving donuts, I asked “If you’re getting rid of them, then can I just have one?”  The answer was an emphatic NO.  They had to throw them away.  If I wanted one, I would have to retrieve it from the dumpster.  I was taken aback by the answer and the fact that a company was had a mandate to throw something away rather than giving it away.  Until this day, this practice still bothers me.  Companies must realize that throwing the food away is a disservice to society in many ways.  All of these items that are disposed of in the food industry nearing or past their “Best before date” are still edible and could be donated.  According to the USDA dates on food “can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date.”

Currently, there are some laws in the United States that encourage food donations, preventing food past it’s “consume by date” from being thrown out.  There is Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, Internal Revenue Code 170(e)(3), and The U.S. Federal Food Donation Act of 2008.  However, these are not enough to prevent the waste of 30-40% of food supply in the US.  When you consider that the waste equates to 20 lbs per person per month, it makes you think of all the energy, resources, water, that go into producing these products, only to end up in a landfill.  I propose that the United States follow initiatives and laws that have recently been passed or proposed in other countries.  They are as follows:

  • French Law – France has become the first country in the world to ban supermarkets form throwing away food by forcing them to donate the food to charities and food banks. Each supermarket will need to sign a donation contract or face a hefty penalty or 2 years in jail.
  • UK Food Waste Reduction Bill – UK parliament is currently reviewing this bill that provides incentives to implement and encourage observance of the food waste reduction , including reduction of waste by manufacturers and distributors by no less than 30% by 2025 and to formalize agreements similar to that of French laws.

I am aware that implementing a law that makes food waste illegal could be challenging but the current incentives/laws in place are not efficiently addressing or solving the problem of healthy food being wasted.  Learning from other countries about the societal benefits of passing a food waste/food donation law would be a win-win situation by reducing hunger while reducing waste.