Two weeks ago, Cinerama screened an episode of Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime's new documentary series about climate change. The series casts Gov. Jay Inslee as the climate champion in contrast to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who responded forcefully to Hurricane Sandy, but called its causes “esoteric” and implied that real governors rebuild houses; they don't spend time wondering whether doing so will set communities up for anoher round of danger and heartbreak.
By now, even those of us who have been asleep at the wheel know that the most recent National Climate Assessment warned that things are very bad and getting worse. We know that the following week, scientists unveiled two different reports which agree that it is now impossible to stop the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from melting over the coming centuries, thus raising sea levels by a dozen or more feet. And we know that shortly after those findings were made public, a military advisory board issued yet another report, introduced by Michael Chertoff (former Secretary of Homeland Security) and Leon Panetta (former Secretary of Defense), which calls the risks of climate change “as serious as any challenge we have faced.”
Despite these warnings, some people persist in seeing fossil fuels — their sale, transport, export, refinement and burning — as a neutral matter of power and jobs. As if, without them, we won’t have power or jobs of any kind. As if it doesn’t matter that by continuing to burn fossil fuels we are putting kids around the world in danger, not to mention adults in New Jersey and many, many other places. As if we aren't setting ourselves up for a future of ocean acidification, landslides and wildfires, rising sea levels and a host of other upheavals. What will South Park be like in a few decades when high tide regularly sends the waters of Puget Sound spilling into its streets?
We can’t fool ourselves anymore: Either fossil fuels are over, or we are. It’s that simple.
Happily, Gov. Inslee has a chance to take action which is both dramatic and meaningful, and in doing so restore Washington State to its place as an environmental leader. The governor can impose a moratorium on all new oil infrastructure projects in the state until the risks have been adequately addressed. In a December 2013 letter, 13 environmental groups asked him to do just that.
Jay Inslee has indeed been a climate champion, and the crowd at the Cinerama screening showed its appreciation for his efforts. Admiration wasn’t all he got, though. Midway through the questions, several activists unfurled a banner from the balcony: “Governor Inslee: Moratorium on Oil Trains Now!” After the moderated question period was over another activist shouted out: Was it true that it’s within his power to stop the proposed new oil terminals? The governor dodged the question, referring, as he had earlier, to his own concerns and to making sure there’s public input, and conflating oil trains with the coal trains on which he’s taken a somewhat more forceful stance.
The governor would no doubt like to keep his job, and become a national climate leader too. He knows that doing so will require striking a fine balance. Powerful forces want us to believe that unless we become a West Coast hub for coal and oil shipment, Washington will be lucky to have any working-class jobs at all. If we let those voices dominate the debate, the governor and the rest of us will be sunk (literally, in some cases).
But given the steady drumbeat of bad climate news, Gov. Inslee would be foolish not to use the moratorium as a way to step forward as one of the nation’s most resolute truth-tellers. It's a natural fit for a green-leaning governor and an innovative state. Washington has been a leader in creating green jobs, which employ far more local people than the fossil fuel industry does.
In May, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick called for a “future free of fossil fuels.” Given Washington's strategic location, that message would be even more meaningful here. You can’t plan for that cleaner future (truth be told, a future of any kind) by building new fossil fuel terminals. Turning down the “opportunity” to act as a coal and oil waystation for the world will send a powerful message, while orienting Washington's labor force towards a clean energy future, and away from the dirty energy past.
Last month, the Port of Portland rejected the possibility of building rail terminals for the highly volatile, fracked Bakken oil. Clearly regretful about the jobs thus lost, a Port spokesperson explained the decision by saying, “This does not feel safe enough for us and the community.”
With Washington still considering proposals to build similar terminals here, how does that quote make you feel? The reasonable fears given voice in Portland should make it harder for officials here to dismiss the dangers. A sane, clean-energy future cannot include massive trans-shipment of fossil fuels, and Jay Inslee knows it.
The moratorium letter from environmental groups asked for an Environmental Impact Statement that “adequately describes the risk the new infrastructure represents.” This language is as radical as it is mild: Who could go forward with projects that are accurately seen to be the root cause of our greatest national security risks: wildfires, droughts, landslides, floods, extinctions and rising seas all over the world?
For the governor and all Washingtonians, the real message of a moratorium is this: We know. We get it. We can’t keep building these terminals and shipping and refining this nasty stuff — we can’t build our economy on it — and survive. We hereby refuse to renew the fossil fuel industry’s WMD license; it has cost us far too much already, and we have better answers.
Gov. Patrick is a lone voice at the moment. But he won’t remain so for long. If Jay Inslee is to be true to himself — and taken seriously on climate — he will have to join the Massachussetts governor. The coal industry has been crying “Uncle!” lately, begging for help, because it knows it is losing the battle. There’s an excellent chance that Washington will follow Oregon's lead and reject coal export facilities. If we also refuse to turn our beautiful state into a gateway for dirty and explosive Bakken oil, it will get harder and harder for other states to rubber-stamp dirty energy business-as-usual — and maybe a little bit easier to find a way out of this mess.
Truth breeds truth. Sanity breeds sanity. Governor Inslee can be a key figure in this transition. Let’s hope he will be.
“This is the place, and this is the time," he told the crowd at Cinerama that night. "And we are the people to take on this challenge.”