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Inslee needs to light a fire on climate change

Gov. Jay Inslee testifies at a legislative hearing. Credit: John Stang

Second of two articles

When Jay Inslee was a congressman, he authored a blueprint for a new moonshot for clean energy. He called it Apollo’s Fire.

Inslee called to the American spirit embodied in John Kennedy’s 1961 commitment to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

“He wrote a new vision statement for the country,” noted Inslee and co-author Bracken Hendricks. “He created a national consensus that we were going to do whatever it took to reach the national goal.”

The book lined out a vision for investment in new energy technologies such as solar, and for amping up energy efficiency to the max.

“We don’t need an incremental increase,” the authors wrote. “As with the original Apollo Project much of the capital will flow from the private sector, but it will take federal investment and policy to move that capital toward new technologies that solve these problems.”

Inslee pushed for a New Apollo Energy Project in Congress, but made little headway in that recalcitrant body. Now he is governor of a state that, like most, is coping with budget stresses. That makes the regulatory approach of capping carbon emissions appear as the more open avenue for progress on climate chage. But as the guy who wrote the book, Inslee knows that carbon cap and trade alone simply does not cut the mustard.

A carbon cap-and-trade market would limit economic impacts by giving major energy users free permits to emit carbon for some years. Thus wood products, aerospace and utility industries would likely be largely or nearly exempt from paying carbon fees. The measure would include a firm cap that would set an absolute limit on carbon emissions. But the tighter the cap becomes, the more pressure there is on energy prices. After all, a cap is intended to raise fossil fuel prices to tip investment to low-carbon energy. As the cap grows tighter, industry will lose its free pass and must start paying fees to emit carbon. So political pressure to bust the cap will increase.  More opportunities for Republicans.

Initiative 937, a clean energy meassure offers a parallel. Voter approval in 2006 only set up a never-ending legislative fight with utilities seeking to dilute the electricity standard requiring that 15 percent of their power eventually will come from renewable resources. Claiming cost impacts, they have met with some success and the pressure is only intensifying as the standard moves toward full implementation in 2020.

As a result, environmental and climate community lobbying resources in Olympia are tied down in a defensive struggle each legislative session. They would have to staff up even more to defend a climate change bill that Inslee might win from the Legislature or through a ballot measure. Powerful interests would do all they can to undermine success. When the next recession hits, remember that mantra: job-killing energy tax.

Policymakers know this, and so will only pass carbon pricing policies they understand will hold the economy harmless. Political support could not be maintained otherwise. So carbon policy that induces modest price increases might have a chance of enactment.  But this also means the incentives to shift to clean and efficient alternatives will be similarly modest. If costs accelerate to the point they have negative economic impacts, political support will dissolve.

This contradicts solid climate science indicating that global carbon emissions must begin to rapidly decline this decade to avert catastrophic climate change. In his article, “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change,’ ” climate scientist James Hansen has laid out a scenario to restore climate stability by the end of the century. It would hold total human carbon emissions to 500 billion metric tons and take 100 billion more from the atmosphere into trees, plants and soils. That would bring atmospheric carbon concentrations down to levels at which we could conceive of saving coastal cities from sea level rise, for example. The scenario requires annual emissions cuts of 6 percent starting almost immediately.

Achieving the needed carbon emissions reductions will require sterner stuff than cap and trade. We are so far behind the stabilization curve that it is going to take a mobilization of resources more on the order of a new Apollo Project or even a World War II. Gov. Inslee and the climate movement need to push for actions that scale to the challenge.

So what can the governor of a state facing fiscal stringency do to launch a New Apollo?

First, Inslee can draw together a statewide stakeholder process joining governments, universities, research institutions, businesses, labor and civic groups to create a New Apollo roadmap for very rapid carbon reductions. The roadmap would identify the necessary actions and provide estimates of the costs. Of course, much of the budget would indeed need to come from the federal government.  The roadmap would help shape a New Apollo agenda for all levels of government, local, state and federal, as well as private, academic and nonprofit participation.

Second building on the roadmap, Washington institutions can explore what more can be done to further energy innovation here by direct research and development, public expenditure and public-private partnerships, building on the governor’s clean energy initiative in 2013, which created a clean energy fund that is supporting a research institute at the University of Washington. We must think out of the box about where to attract resources from beyond the state. Maybe it’s by attracting money from overseas by leveraging our stellar R&D and entrepreneurial assets.

Third, Inslee can spread the idea of creating New Apollo roadmaps to other governors and states to help build national momentum for a national agenda. Nobody is better prepared to mount that bully pulpit than Jay Inslee.

I earnestly hope chances for passing the governor’s climate package in the 2015 Legislature are better than I think. Despite its limitations, a real carbon cap would be important. But recognize that whatever can pass will be more a sub-orbital flight than a moonshot. The New Apollo will take a concerted initiative bringing together all the public, private and civic resources we have at hand.  It is time for Jay Inslee to return to his roots and light up Apollo’s Fire in Washington state.

The first article in this two-part series is here

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