Inslee's climate effort will face steep odds

Commentary: Gov. Jay Inslee is genuinely devoted to addressing climate issues. But is he relying on a strategy that has already missed its time?
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Can Jay Inslee win a climate package that protects the environment without subjecting his party to charges of killing jobs?

Commentary: Gov. Jay Inslee is genuinely devoted to addressing climate issues. But is he relying on a strategy that has already missed its time?

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.

Steyer could bring substantial funding to a Washington climate measure. Funding by other high-net-worth individuals from technology and finance is also in play. So the governor and the Washington climate community might have some confidence they could win a money-and-TV war with the fossil fuel industry and its allies. 

Again the political shoals appear. Climate measure proponents would need to forward a rather complex and wonky measure against the job-killing energy tax charge. Opponents would only have to sow doubt about economic impacts in the public mind to win.   

If the measure is for carbon cap and trade, the potential for manipulating carbon markets will certainly be raised. A neo-populist attack on Wall Street financiers who want to pick your pocket — again — can easily be envisioned.

Sen. Maria Cantwell has opposed cap and trade based on her experience uncovering Enron’s power market pranks, which led to a West Coast power meltdown and exploding consumer electrical rates in 2001. She has proposed a cap without a trading market. Cantwell’s own statements against cap and trade could be used by opponents.  

Climate community leaders looking to replicate their Initiative 937 from 2006 success should also recall that the measure passed by a bare-assed 51.7 percent. That was for a fairly straightforward measure on utility industry power sources, communicated by the sexy iconic of wind turbines. The challenge of communicating carbon cap and trade will be much steeper.

Jay Inslee is a mighty fine basketball player who as a congressman once challenged the president of the United States to shoot some hoops. I have no doubt he will play as hard as he did in those games (the executive and legislative branch teams played two games to a split decision). Jay will put his full heart into enacting some kind of climate policy.  But he is playing up against steep odds.

All that said, passing some kind of carbon framework would be a definitive gain. But the fact is that even if the governor and his allies pull off a climate policy victory, the effect of the policy would fall far short of what is needed to halt global warming.  

For that Jay and the Washington climate community should turn to the approach he put out in his book, Apollo’s Fire.  What we need to combat global warming and leave a planet to our children that is not on a course to climate catastrophe is at least a new moonshot, and more likely a World War II-scale mobilization of national and global resources. 

Part 2 covers the limits of carbon cap and trade and the potentials for a new moonshot.


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