By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
It’s been 26 years since NASA scientist James Hansen told the U.S. Senate that human use of fossil fuels is responsible for an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are causing global warming. It’s been 17 years since three dozen countries (but not the United States) agreed in the Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It’s been eight years since Al Gore released the climate change documentary Inconvenient Truth. And during that time, global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen — from 350 parts per million to 363, 385, and this year, 400 parts per million — a level not seen in 800,000 years.
On Sept. 21, as many as 400,000 people [or more plausibly as few as 120,000] took part in People’s Climate March in New York City to demand action be taken now to slow and reverse global warming. And the big event was mirrored by 2,600 other events around the world, including a rally and march of several thousand in Portland at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
In New York City, labor unionists took up several city blocks. In Portland, the labor presence was pretty small: Just two or three banners, and not more than 20 participants. But attendees did hear from the state’s top labor union officer — Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain — who made a call for unity.
“There are those who want to force workers to choose between good jobs and the environment, and there are those who will support environmental change only if done as cheap as possible at the expense of workers,” Chamberlain said. “Those are false observations and false choices.”
Chamberlain followed, and echoed, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who called global climate change the most serious challenge and greatest threat facing our children and our grandchildren: “This is not a choice between the environment and the economy. It is the simple statement that the environment is not a resource to be exploited. In fact the environment is the foundation of our economy.”
But if that’s so, serious measures are going to have to be deployed. Climate change has already begun to affect the state, national, and global economy. In Oregon, California winemakers are buying up Willamette Valley vineyards, driven north by worsening drought. Insect pests are also moving north, and dry forests have made large-scale annual wildfires the new normal.
To address global warming, environmental groups — with labor at the table — are discussing the pros and cons of campaigning for a carbon tax in the 2015 Oregon Legislature. The Canadian province of British Columbia has implemented a carbon tax, while the state of California has begun a “cap-and-trade” system of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (an improved version of the system implemented in Europe). In the state of Washington, Governor Jay Inslee has formed a Carbon Emission Reduction Task Force that is studying both options. Oregon legislators considered a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but it didn’t have enough support to become law.
But in 2013, a bill passed by the Oregon Legislature commissioned an in-depth study of the impacts of a carbon tax. That report is due this November. If Oregon legislators take up a carbon tax proposal, it could have far-reaching local benefits as well as costs. Putting a price on carbon would stimulate conservation. And a preliminary version of the report indicates that a tax of $60 per ton of carbon emission would generate as much as $2 billion a year in revenue. The Oregon Constitution says any tax on motor vehicle fuel has to go for road construction and maintenance, so any portion of a carbon tax that affected gasoline could generate a boom in highway and road work, or even resuscitate scrapped plans for a new transit-friendly I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.