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Governor’s race brings rare climate discussion

Solar panels do double duty in Las Vegas, generating power and providing shade to cars in a parking lot. Credit: J.N. Stuart/Flickr

This election season it’s unusual for candidates in any race to talk about clean energy as a solution to the jobs crisis let alone the climate crisis. The Washington state governor’s race gets about as close as any to talking about the issues.

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Jay Inslee, the Democratic candidate in the Washington governor’s race, has a long track record in championing renewable energy and environmental protections. During the Bush administration, then-Congressman Inslee introduced the New Apollo Energy Act, a comprehensive proposal to accelerate renewable energy. In 2006 he campaigned for a successful state initiative that established renewable energy targets for electric utilities, which has generated $7 billion in renewable investments since it was passed, according to the Sierra Club. In 2009 he co-founded the House’s Sustainable Energy and Environment Caucus to advance policies to combat climate change and create green energy jobs.

In his campaign for governor, Inslee has proposed a job creation tax credit and Advanced Sustainable Biofuels Center, among other ideas, to stimulate clean energy technology. Speaking to reporters in Seattle, Inslee was asked if the weak economy were driving his push for clean energy jobs. “Yes, and the environmental threats we have,” he said. A fossil fuel based economy is finite, said Inslee. “I want to make sure to use our infinite source of energy, which is the human intellect and innovative entrepreneurial capacity. I want to put that fuel to work.”

Not all are sure Inslee’s clean economy proposal will create enough jobs and some have criticized his investment in a solar company while also pushing incentives for the industry.

His Republican opponent, Rob McKenna, has an environmental record of his own. In 2008, as state Attorney General, he joined other states in a court order demanding the EPA regulate motor vehicle emissions and later that year joined a lawsuit against the EPA for its failure to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from oil refineries. While the environment has not played a major role in McKenna’s campaign for governor, he did need to address the issue at a recent debate. Moderator Enrique Cerna asked McKenna where he would stand on a controversial plan to transport millions of tons of coal to Washington export terminals for shipment to China. “These terminals are very large and could have significant environmental impacts, possibly health impact. They’re going to have to go through a lengthy environmental review process to assess the impact of the trains that carry the coal to reach those terminals. In making those evaluations they’re going to have to assess whether the trains are coming anyway. In other words, will the trains come whether we build the terminals or not.”

Inslee responded that jobs created by the coal port terminal are positive but two-mile long trains going through towns numerous times a day could impact small businesses. He also used the opportunity to again tout his clean economy proposal. “We should embrace the innovative spirit of Washington to build a clean energy industrial base, so we sell new systems that aren’t fossil fuel based – solar energy, wind energy, energy efficiency.”

Outside of the Green Party, there aren’t many candidates promoting alternatives to a fossil fuel based economy nationally. Inslee’s approach has caught the attention of some Democratic political strategists, including Betsy Taylor, who works with Breakthrough Strategies, a fundraising and marketing firm. She says Inslee stands out in his bid to “champion climate solutions.” She says Inslee is actually the only gubernatorial candidate that Climate Heroes 2012, a campaign-funding group she is involved with, has selected across the country. “He’s probably going to be the greenest governor in the history of the country.” All told, Climate Heroes is supporting just 14 candidates nationally this year; except for Inslee, all are in U.S. Senate or House of Representatives contests.

Yet in the race for governor, the words “climate change” are rarely mentioned by either Inslee or McKenna. “The sad thing about the issue is it’s been politicized.” Taylor says Republicans are attacked within their own party if they acknowledge climate change and Democrats are fearful it will turn off voters. Polling conducted by Yale University and George Mason University, says Taylor, shows global warming will be one of the single most important issues that influence voters. But inside the beltway, pundits and advisors urge candidates from Obama on down to avoid talking about it, she says. “It will get you attacked. You’ll lose independent voters. That’s not true. But I think there’s a leaning curve here for candidates, including Jay Inslee.”

Mike Vaska is a Republican who has advised many GOP officeholders and candidates on the environment, including McKenna and John McCain when he ran for president (disclosure: Vaska is on Crosscut’s board of directors). Vaska says climate change is the largest issue the country has faced in generations. But he says the issue is polarizing. Talking about climate change in the context of clean energy, contends Vaska, is less divisive. “The divide here is not whether government should play a role in helping to develop clean technology,” he says. “It’s what role is appropriate and likely to be most successful. Because it’s going to take leaders in both parties and people who aren’t in parties to find solutions.”

Clean energy is the next global revolution, one that will power a variety of companies with deep roots in the state, says Ross McFarland with the environmental group Climate Solutions. “The big issue is where we invest, where we innovate and are we going to have the leadership that’s going to be moving us toward 21st century energy sources.” Climate Solutions doesn’t endorse candidates but says most of the key clean energy and climate change policies at the federal level have come from state innovation:  “Things like the clean car rule, things like the state renewable policy standards, like many of the energy conservation measures.” McFarland says It’s critical to have leadership that embraces these policies “for us to better link up with some of the more innovative states and provinces that are working on these issues, many of whom are right here on the West Coast.” McFarland refers to California’s broad climate and energy policies, Oregon’s clean energy leadership under Gov. John Kitzhaber and British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Whoever wins the Washington governor’s race, the state already has a growing clean energy economy. Thirty years ago the state decided to invest in energy conservation as the most cost effective source of energy. Daniel Malarkey is Deputy Director of the State Department of Commerce. “So we stopped building nuclear power plants and started putting insulation and having better windows and that has been tremendously successful.” Careful to not take a position in the governor’s race, Malarkey says it’s really about greening the economy. He says Boeing’s Dreamliner, the first major commercial airliner to use light composite materials for most of its construction, is already 20 percent more energy efficient than its competitor. Still, like most states, Malarkey says, Washington remains heavily fossil fuel dependent, especially in the transportation sector. “Climate change is a scientific fact. It’s a reality. We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Whether it will be a reality for the next governor of Washington state, let alone the nation, remains to be seen. Betsy Taylor, the Democratic political strategist, says political candidates need to do a lot better in their work on climate change.

Green Acre Radio receives support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby.

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