After months of quiet conversations between leaders in Washington state government, environmental NGOs and other key climate-related interests to shape a climate policy proposal, the deal is now on the public table. Gov. Jay Inslee will pursue a carbon cap-and-trade program in the state Legislature next year, with specific details to be nailed down by a task force appointed by the governor.
Inslee’s climate plan announced April 29 includes a number of other measures for clean fuels, coal plant shutdowns, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and clean technology. But the carbon market is the biggie, and the one most likely to run up on the shoals of political and climate reality.
The governor and his allies want to replicate climate policy successes in other states, although those took place in a starkly different political climate. The two carbon frameworks in existence in the United States, the California cap-and-trade system and the Northeast states Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap-and-trade for power plants, were products of unique moments.
The climate policy successes were genuine bipartisan efforts backed by centrist Republican governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and, in the Northeast, George Pataki of New York. They emerged in the 2003-05 period, when the economy was soaring on the housing boom. Like the boom, the bipartisan moment has passed. Republicans have hardened the lines against any kind of carbon pricing.
When Inslee's climate proposal hits the Legislature, Republicans will likely line up hard against it. They will see too much of a political opportunity to portray the governor and his allies as proponents of a job-killing energy tax. Victory-hungry Republicans will sniff the chance to bloody Inslee and other Democratic electeds in the 2016 election. The pressure on individual Republican legislators against breaking ranks will be intense.
Thus, as with passage of the Affordable Care Act in Congress, Democratic ranks will have to be as solid for a climate bill as Republicans are against it. But many Democratic legislators from moderate and swing districts will be hesitant, if not purely opposed. They will be caught between Seattle environmentalists, with whom the measure will be mostly closely associated, and their own voters, who have little love for latte sipping downtown liberals. In timber industry districts the tree wars of the 1980s and '90s are well remembered, and environmentalists are blamed for high unemployment that was a chronic problem even before the Great Recession. The pressure on individual Democratic legislators to break ranks with the governor will be as intense as the pressure on Republicans to stay united. Guess who wins.
The Washington Legislature did pass a climate bill with long-term carbon limits in the 2008 session, when Democrats held wide margins in both houses. But it was a cap without teeth, really more of a way to set up a sense of momentum going into the federal climate bill fight of 2009-10. The federal bill failed because of unified opposition by Republicans allied with fossil fuel and industrial state Democrats who know where their bread is buttered.
Now the climate community is fighting the war again at the state level. But even if the Democrats can regain control of the state Senate, they likely will have less of a margin than in 2008. Gov. Inslee, an acknowledged and real climate champion, will carry the ball as best he can. But can he get the numbers to add up in the Legislature? It looks like a hard uphill climb to gain legislative victory.
So the next move likely would be to the ballot, attempting to replicate the success of Initiative 937 in bringing a renewable electricity standard to Washington. The potential for ballot success was raised by California hedge fund billionaire and liberal funder Tom Steyer when he keynoted the Climate Solutions annual breakfast in Seattle last year. Steyer talked about ballot measures as an end run around recalcitrant legislatures, citing his own success in a California energy efficiency measure. Inslee himself raised the possibility of a ballot run in a recent climate forum at the University of Washington.
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