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Reinventing the energy lobby

A packed house in Bellevue College's Carlson Theater. Credit: Environmental Priorities Coalition

Power shifts in Olympia may not yet be fully tested, but a coalition of more than 20 environmental groups has wasted no time in identifying a trio of priorities for the 2013 session. The group, which includes Futurewise, the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters among others, outlined their priorities back in December, giving legislators plenty of time to mull them over before the session began in mid-January.

The first, developing clean energy solutions, takes aim at millions of dollars of oil industry tax breaks, and advocates promoting affordable options for solar energy and studying ways to reduce carbon pollution. A second, focused on conservation, seeks $400 million in capital spending for environmentally-responsible statewide projects focused on reducing toxic storm runoff and making forests more resilient to fires and disease. The third is geared toward keeping toxics out of couches and childrens' toys. 

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“The reality of our environment and our environmental health is that there is work to do everywhere,” explains Darcy Nonemacher with the Washington Environmental Council. Nonemacher believes that one way to protect Puget Sound, the Spokane River in Eastern Washington and other waterways is to invest in more low impact development that creates jobs. One goal of the coalition's conservation-focused priority is to fund the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, a nationally-recognized grant program for local communities, so that it could create more jobs to protect wildlife habitat and preserve working farms. 

The priority was selected to address common issues across the Cascade curtain, says Nonemacher. “But fundamentally it’s about the need. How do we act responsibly and do things differently?”

If it seems foolhardy to ask for $400 million in capital funding to protect the environment in light of the state's $1 billion operating budget shortfall, it’s important to note, says Bill Robinson with The Nature Conservancy, that the capital budget is different than the operating budget. Capital budgets are paid for with dedicated funding sources or general obligation bonds and pay for the construction of new buildings, recreation and the conservation and restoration of lands.

A recent NOAA study, adds Robinson, showed that for every dollar spent restoring forest land and waterways, three to four times more jobs are created than with funding for highway construction. “So we really think if you’re going to do good conservation work on the ground, you can do that in a way that really benefits our economy and is good for people as well,” Robinson reasons.

Part of the challenge is to convince lawmakers that conservation is good for the economy and that clean energy solutions can “power the economy forward and reduce climate pollution,” as the environmental priorities coalition suggests.

At a legislative workshop to train activists in giving good public testimony, Senator Steve Litzow, a Republican from Mercer Island with an 80 percent approval rating from the coalition, was on-hand to answer questions. 

“I think it’s going to be a very low key session quite frankly," he said. "You’ve got a bunch of new people. The Senate’s new. You’ve got very tight borders on either side.” His goal, says Litzow, is to form what he calls “coalitions that work for everybody.”  Whether they’ll be ready to study — let alone adopt — policies to reduce carbon pollution and address climate change is uncertain. “What the legislature reacts to very well is concrete proposals," he explains. "So if we have a climate change issue, [think about] what can we do in transportation, what can we do from a regulatory and law point of view to actually alleviate that issue.”

The group is also advocating for an examination of the carbon tax and cap and trade policies already instituted in British Columbia, California and through the east coast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Those policies are already stimulating growth in clean energy, according to the environmental coalition.

“There are different models of ways to price carbon,” says Becky Kelley, with the Washington Environmental Council. “We want the legislature to assess those that would work for Washington state. [Figure out] what would be most economically and environmentally beneficial and then come back next year and move ahead.” Pricing carbon shifts higher taxes to things the state needs less of, like pollution, says Kelley.

“But it’s essential. The climate impacts we’ve seen in Washington and in the United States this year are a frightening preview of what’s to come.”

But asking the legislature to study carbon pricing isn’t good enough for 11-year-old Zoe Foster. Zoe and her sister came to the environmental priorities workshop with their dad to ask legislators for action on climate change. “I was pretty annoyed at the way they kept sort of changing the subject whenever somebody asked them a question about climate change,” Zoe complains.

“You could tell from her voice," adds her sister Stella. "She was saying, are you going to do something about this or not?”

The girls' dad, Michael Foster, says none of the coalition's environmental priorities address climate change with the urgency it needs. “They’re not asking for anything that’s going to make a difference for my daughters and their generation. Until Washington state becomes a carbon sink that is absorbing more CO2 than we’re giving off, we haven’t done enough.” Restoring forests to make them more resilient to fire and disease is important, says Foster, a volunteer with the Climate Reality Project, “but if we don’t plant a couple trillion trees really quick, we don’t have a chance. We’ve got to restore lost forests. Nobody is talking about that.”

Couple reforestation with an annual global CO2 emissions reduction of 6 percent starting now, says Foster, citing a report by James Hansen with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and it may be possible to see CO2 levels reduced to 350 parts per million by the end of the century. “Anything less or any delay,” Foster explains, while his daughters nod, “and we risk runaway climate change that we’re not in control of anymore.” 

Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering is by CJ Lazenby. From the studios of Jack Straw Productions. 

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