The Gristle

The Climate in Olympia
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THE CLIMATE IN OLYMPIA: The state Legislature is back in session and the paralysis of government is on proud display. The paralysis is driven by the party structure of the modern conservative movement, which mirrors the sorts of dysfunction seen at the national level. Nowhere is this more immediately evident than in the 40th and 42nd Legislative Districts, a vast, unbreachable gulf… separated by the width of a street in central Bellingham, the width of a fence in some parts of the rural county.

To the south, representatives work to improve public education and the state’s energy profile. To the north, they work to liberate firearms and to destroy the state’s revenue portfolio, and with it the state’s ability to address the problems of a modern society. In short, one district works to solve problems that actually exist in the world; the other does not.

The chasm would be comical if its consequences weren’t so dire.

Last year, at the urging of the new governor, the legislature approved Senate Bill 5802 authorizing a task force “to prepare a credible evaluation of approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” primarily through a rejiggering of the state’s energy profile. Lawmakers had already passed a measure in 2011 to phase out the state’s last existing coal-fired power plant and, meanwhile, readily understood that forecasted population growth cannot be served by hydro power alone.

The Climate Legislative Work Group (CLEW) is supposed to come up with recommendations to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Leading the work group in Olympia are Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat in the 40th District, and Sen. Doug Ericksen, a Republican in the 42nd District. A more acrimonious pairing could hardly be imagined.

The work group concluded 2013 by issuing two proposals. Predictably, the Republican proposal recommended cheaper approaches and did much less to reduce CO2 emissions that the Democratic proposal.

CLEW Republicans began the year by issuing a press release calling for additional study of the economic and environmental impacts of various carbon reduction policy proposals.

“It is vital that legislators receive accurate information about the economic costs and the potential environmental benefits surrounding any carbon-reduction efforts,” Ericksen said. He chairs the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. “We also need real numbers on Washington’s actual role in worldwide carbon output.”

Ericksen and fellow Republican Shelly Short—a representative of minuscule Ferry County in eastern Washington, a county with a population half that of the City of Lynden—recommended at least another year of such study.

For Ranker, looking at a reduction threshold of less than six years, additional delay is unacceptable. The state is already likely to be 9.5 million metric tons off the 2020 goal.

“Doing nothing is the only option not on the table,” said Ranker, who also serves on the senate committee with Ericksen and is ranking member of the senate’s powerful Ways and Means Committee, responsible for crafting the state budget. He serves on CLEW with fellow Democrat Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, of the populous West Seattle district (perhaps you can see a pattern forming).

Among CLEW proposals is a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system, policies long studied and understood at the federal level. Other proposals include eliminating “coal-by-wire”—receiving transmitted coal-generated electricity from out of state—and, controversially, an expansion of the state’s nuclear energy capacity. But the first proposals, Ranker notes, have been extensively studied and could be enacted immediately. Prior to 2008, cap-and-trade was the de facto market-based approach to emissions reduction favored and promoted by the Republican Party.

“The first year of the CLEW process highlighted just how little is known about how a regional or state-only cap-and-trade or carbon tax would impact our state,” Ericksen countered. “We also do not have solid data on the potential positive economic impacts that could come from a focus on replacing carbon fuels with nuclear energy, increased hydro power or making conservation a priority.”

For Ranker—concerned with the effects of ocean acidification on the state’s coasts and the loss of snowpack in the state’s mountains, and the impacts of that on the state’s hydro capacity—stalling Olympia’s response to climate change represents the real threat to future jobs.

“While I’m disappointed, I’m also optimistic that Gov. Inslee, Rep. Fitzgibbon and I can continue to work on solutions to this very serious issue that impacts every person in our state and planet.”

Ericksen told listeners at the Northwest Business Club in July that he has doubts climate change is occurring. In March, his committee managed to strip language from the enacting SB 5802 (originally sponsored by Ranker) that the state is experiencing a series of problems related to climate change.

In the same month, the Consensus Project completed an analysis of more than 4,000 international scientific papers on climate and reported 97 percent endorsed a view that climate was changing and that human activity was the significant cause. The nation’s 18 leading scientific associations confirmed the finding and echoed, “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”

Ericksen’s admission alone should disqualify him from serving on a task force designed to forthrightly address what he considers a phantom problem, but that is not the gridlocked reality in which our bicameral governments are mired—a reality that empowers the 3 percent to a status equal to the 97 percent, to the ruin of all.

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