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Climate hawk Inslee leaves McKenna room to maneuver

Jay Inslee will draw support nationally because of his green policies. Republican Rob McKenna can take a moderate position and still be to the right of the Democratic candidate.

Inslee at the "Evening with the Stars of Energy Efficiency" Awards Dinner

Inslee at the "Evening with the Stars of Energy Efficiency" Awards Dinner Jay Inslee (Flickr)

Jay Inslee's entry into the 2012 Washington gubernatorial race brings with it one of the newer terms in the American political lexicon: "climate hawk," of which Inslee appears to be one with full talons as epaulets.

The term came into use with an article last October on the Seattle-based Grist.org, and has since taken on general usage, at least in the environmental and climate-change communities (not necessarily the same, as Grist writer David Roberts and others have pointed out).

Roberts adopted the term after asking for ideas for a term that would describe strong advocates of doing something about climate change.

"Why not 'clean energy hawk'? Roberts asked. "For one thing, two words are snappier than three and easier to write. For another, it's important to keep the threat of climate change at the center of the conversation; clean energy is one way of fighting back against that threat, but there are many others. A climate hawk leans forward, wants to attack on as many fronts as possible. ... It will strike people as something they already are, not something they have to be persuaded to become."

The definition of a climate hawk seems to be settling out as something that is not exactly the same as environmentalism, but the difference may be one of form rather than substance. Matthew Yglesias, blogging for ThinkProgress.org, identifies himself as a climate hawk, defining his rookery as: "We're very serious people who want to confront the major challenges of our time. Are we environmentalists? Perhaps. But many of us aren't really 'nature-lovers,' we just think it would be unfortunate if low-lying areas were flooded, while vast new regions of the earth are stricken with drought. We recognize that the particulate pollution from burning coal and the geopolitical consequences of oil dependence are both dire enough to make a compelling case for energy reform even apart from the greenhouse gas issue."

If you Google "climate hawk" and Inslee's name, you come up with dozens of articles linking the two, all a spinoff in one way or another from Roberts' terminology. It is an example of the way a term spins into usage rapidly through the use of the Internet.

The Inslee campaign will energize climate-change groups nationwide; the congressman has been a leader in the House on energy and climate issues since before Al Gore popularized global warming. Inslee sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and with Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), founded the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, which has 48 Democratic members of Congress in its ranks. He has been particularly aggressive in seeking an end to coal-fired plants and in pushing green technology. Inslee has called for an "Apollo-styled mission" to make clean energy a national mission.

Washington is generally identified as a "green" state, but economic problems in the past three years have taken climate change off the agenda in Olympia. The major legislative action in Olympia this year was a law that will shut down one of two boilers at the Trans Alta coal-fired plant in Centralia by 2020 and phase out coal burning by 2025. Currently on the edge of the playing field is a request from opponents of a coal-export terminal north of Bellingham for the state to take over or at least take co-leadership of environmental examination of the proposal. Gov. Chris Gregoire will make that decision, but it could arise as an issue in the gubernatorial race.

Because Inslee's views on climate change are so well known, likely Republican candidate Rob McKenna will have little hope of acquiring the votes of other climate hawks; but neither will McKenna be pressured to adopt the national Republican mantra that global warming is not caused by human activity. While that may play to the GOP base and the Tea Party, it would not be a winning issue in a state as "green" as Washington. McKenna can move to the right of Inslee on this issue without taking an extreme position.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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