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Climate Change Is on the Ballot in Washington State. Here’s Why It Matters for the Rest of the Country

7 minute read

From a glimpse of the television ads, campaign speeches and newspaper headlines, it might be hard to guess that climate change is on the ballot in the fast-approaching midterm elections.

But climate activists and policy experts across the political spectrum say that, win or lose, a ballot initiative in Washington state that would create a first-in-the-nation carbon tax has the potential to shake up the national debate about how to address climate change.

If approved, the initiative would require companies to pay to emit climate-change causing carbon dioxide and would in turn provide the Pacific Northwest state with a revenue stream to fund a slew of government programs from clean energy projects to relocating communities threatened by rising sea levels. Perhaps more significantly, the measure would jumpstart a national debate about how to put a price on carbon, thought by many to be central to efforts to stem global warming.

“This is new ground for everybody,” says John Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group, an energy research firm. “If Washington gets this in place, it’s going to provide a different picture of what’s possible.”

The policy — known as I-1631 — would require companies to pay $15 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide they emit beginning in 2020. The fee would provide the state with around $1 billion in annual revenue, and the price would increase gradually over time. Supporters of the initiative say it would allow the state to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% by 2035, the state’s official target. Washington would use 70% of the funds for clean air and energy investments, 25% for water and forests, and 5% for “healthy communities.” Supporters list new solar and wind farms, forest restoration and climate education programs among the potential direct beneficiaries of a new program.

Some of these programs are aspirational, but others will need to be completed even if the initiative fails. But so far Washington communities have struggled to get funding. “We’re very appreciative of the money we do get from Congress,” says Leonard Forsman, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an umbrella group that represents more than 30 tribes in Washington. “But we have a lot of competition, and we need more.”

To be sure, passage remains far from certain. Polling suggests that the race is a toss up, and while prominent local companies like Microsoft and Expedia have announced their support for the measure, several oil and gas industry players have spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat it. A loss would require Washington state to rethink how it meets its climate change goals. Voters in the state rejected a carbon tax in 2016, in part because progressive groups opposed it for being too conservative. And today many opponents of the measure insist that they want to fight climate change, but they argue that the measure is poorly constructed — a common argument against popular but complex ballot initiatives that has proved successful in the past.

Regardless of the outcome, the effort is likely to help shape the emerging national discussion surrounding pricing carbon. A loss would underscore questions about the viability of a progressive carbon tax that funds clean energy, jobs and climate adaptation programs and perhaps lead some activists to focus on a different structure. (A more moderate approach to a carbon tax is “revenue neutral,” meaning it cuts taxes elsewhere or gives the money back to taxpayers in some other form). On the other hand, a win would give momentum to such measures, particularly in other blue states, while giving supporters of a more moderate approach incentive to act more urgently.

At the moment, a federal carbon tax may seem like a distant mirage. The topic rarely captures attention on the nation’s airwaves. President Donald Trump has repeatedly denied the science of climate change, including earlier this month in response to a landmark U.N. report on the topic. And most Democrats have not prioritized the issue.

Read More: President Trump Won’t Say If He Still Thinks Climate Change Is a Hoax. Here’s Why

But a slew of small developments — beyond the vote in Washington state — hint at the emerging debate. A group of Republican elder statesmen and prominent economists started an initiative called the Climate Leadership Council and floated what they call a carbon fee and dividend that would charge polluters and give the money back to Americans as a middle-class tax cut. Congressman Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from South Florida facing a tough re-election campaign, introduced carbon tax legislation this year that would fund an infrastructure program.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of a potential change on hand comes from an unlikely place: the energy industry. For decades, fossil fuel companies have funded efforts to distort climate science and slow policy action. Their tenor has changed in recent years as these companies increasingly recognize that measures to address climate change are inevitable in the long term. The sector would rather shape the rules in a fashion that gives them a lane for survival rather than face stringent regulation the next time a Democrat takes office. For many, that means advocating a price on carbon now.

Several energy companies have supported the Climate Leadership Council. This year, ExxonMobil announced a $1 million lobbying push to promote a federal carbon tax. The proposal the company supports includes a provision that would protect oil and gas companies from liability over the damages caused by climate change, the subject of mounting lawsuits including one filed Oct. 24 by New York state. And while several oil and gas companies have funded an opposition campaign to the Washington state initiative, others have declined to take sides publicly.

Many in the industry say that a carbon tax would provide the certainty needed for business to make big investments. “We need to be focused on what is the message that we can provide with a much larger voice by 2020 and try to make those changes,” said Chris Crane, the CEO of Exelon, a leading power company that supports a carbon tax, at an event in Washington, D.C., this week.

Support from the energy industry is a big deal for Republicans, many of whom remain wary to cross powerful fossil fuel interests. Once that fear fades, observers expect many moderate Republicans to join the discussion. At least a dozen Republican senators are interested in a climate change solution, says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has made climate change a signature issue. And while Republicans remain wary of stepping out and drawing fire, that may not be the case for long. “There’s a very realistic prospect of getting to a place where all the Democrats are on board and a significant, telling number of Republicans are on board,” he says.

Measures like 1631 may play a significant role building momentum and defining the contours of the conversation. But ultimately the details may be less important than getting a deal in the first place when it comes to safeguarding the planet and the people who live on it. The Nature Conservancy, a leading environmental group, supports both the Washington state initiative and the CLC proposal.

“We need action on climate and we are agnostic” on what it looks like, says Mo McBroom, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Washington state. “There are many different ways to accomplish good carbon reduction policy.”

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com