How Washington state can lead on climate

Smarter carbon controls won't necessarily happen quickly, but experts say the Northwest is headed in the right direction.
Crosscut archive image.

Alan Durning, center, discusses carbon emissions.

Smarter carbon controls won't necessarily happen quickly, but experts say the Northwest is headed in the right direction.

The Pacific Northwest is on the cutting edge of tackling climate change, but it will likely be a something of a slog before major policy advances occur.

That message that emerged when leaders of Climate Solutions, including KC Golden and innovations director Eileen Quigley, and the Sightline Institute's Alan Durning, met with Crosscut writers and editors Tuesday. 

Washington is dealing with coal trains, oil trains, ocean acidification and debates on carbon emissions and clean fuel — all with a governor who sees climate change as a major issue. “We have an unusual opportunity for climate leadership in the Northwest. ... This makes the Northwest a significant place in the chessboard of the global economy," said Durning, executive director of Sightline, a Seattle-based think tank on sustainability matters.

Golden, senior policy advisor for the Seattle-based nonprofit Climate Solutions, sees the present as a time to "draw a line in the sand" against expanding the fossil fuel industry, which includes oil refineries, oil trains and proposed coal ports in Washington. Golden also argued that Washington is in better shape than other places to draw that line, in part because of its clean-energy firms. He warned that more capital investments in fossil fuel facilities would make that industry even more reluctant to abandon their investments, slowing the shift to cleaner energy sources.

Golden and Durning described shifts in climate policy as likely happening in increments, in "non-linear" starts and stops over time — and not with pushes that will necessarily see fruition next year. But Durning said Washington state and Oregon are both very likely to act in major fashion on carbon emissions within five years. "Is it an easy political win? No," Durning said.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to unveil a cap-and-trade and carbon emissions tax proposals to the Washington Legislature in 2015. The Inslee administration's preliminary thoughts on a carbon emissions tax proposal so far appear to favor a revenue-neutral approach. That means whatever is collected with a carbon emissions tax might be sent back to taxpayers as either working family tax credits or rebates on business-and-operations. The actual details probably won't be unveiled until early 2015.

In a cap-and-trade program, Washington would have an overall annual limit to its carbon dioxide emissions. Limits would be set for specific geographic areas. Firms would obtain rights for specific amounts of emissions in those areas and could trade their rights. A carbon tax is simply a levy on a firm's carbon dioxide emissions, which is supposed to inspire a business to decrease its emissions.

However, the state's Republican legislators — whose control of the Washington Senate allows them an easy chance to block many Inslee measures — have opposed most climate proposals from the Democrats. The GOP legislators have argued that climate change is not a major priority for the state's taxpayers and that forcing cuts in carbon emissions could hurt Washington's economy.

Golden, who serves on a task force advising Inslee's on climate, said what the state proposes to do with carbon tax revenue will likely be a huge factor in whether it can get through the Legislature. Golden and Durning speculated it might take a few years to get Republican legislators to change their minds. But Durning pointed out that British Columbia's carbon tax program — which Washington could copy — originally came from the conservative side of that province's political aisle. And Golden noted that California's market-based cap and-trade system originated under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. And California's system grew out of a West Coast Climate Initiative that included Oregon and Washington — states that, despite having Democratic governors, still haven’t moved as aggressively as California to control carbon emissions.

Durning and Golden suggested that several factors could be keys in getting a carbon emissions tax that the public and Legislature would accept. Those include mapping out how the resulting dollars flow through the economy, how a carbon tax's economic ripples compare to those of other carbon-control approaches and identifying specifically which parts help or handicap specific businesses or industries.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8