Inslee climate plans: Heavy winds ahead

The governor readies a measure to limit carbon emissions. His critics roll out arguments against it. Get ready for the 2015 legislative session.
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Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville

The governor readies a measure to limit carbon emissions. His critics roll out arguments against it. Get ready for the 2015 legislative session.

There's going to be a big climate change brawl in Washington's 2015 legislative session. And both sides spent Tuesday gearing up for it.

On Tuesday, the verbal jabbing seemed to warm up markedly on both sides.

Senate Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, charged that fundamental planks of Gov. Jay Inslee's efforts to deal with climate change "were scribbled in crayon." Schoesler based his charges on an analysis by the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, of a University of Oregon economic study cited by Inslee last spring in pushing his efforts to deal with carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, Dr. Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, told an Inslee advisory task force that climate change is linked to growing health problems. He quoted an article in The Lancet, a prestigious peer-reviewed medical weekly: "Climate change is the biggest health threat of the 21st century."

The Inslee task force was discussing what it will tell the governor on Nov. 17. That's when the task force will give Inslee advice on what factors to consider as he prepares a package to address climate change, which will be sent to the Legislature in early 2015.

One of Inslee's chief passions is to tackle climate change in Washington, with carbon emissions being a major target. Inslee wants to push either a cap-and-trade program or a carbon emissions tax, but not both simultaneously. In a cap-and-trade program, Washington would have an overall annual limit to its carbon dioxide emissions. 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.

Carbon emissions are linked to global warming, which influences how snowpacks melt, which in turn affects how much water is available for farming. Carbon emissions are also a factor in the increasing acidity of the water along Washington's shores including Puget Sound, which has begun killing baby oysters and harming other shellfish harvested in the Northwest. Washington’s shellfish industry is worth about $270 million annually.

When Inslee got the green light for the current advisory task force last spring, he said studies showed climate change and carbon emissions would cost Washington's economy $10 billion by 2020 if nothing was done to combat that ecological problem.

Analyst Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center looked over a University of Oregon study that Inslee has cited. Myers charged that the 2010 University of Oregon study is outdated, and its researchers manipulated or misinterpreted data. "Predictions that are wildly exaggerated, perhaps to make political points, undermine a commitment to science-based policy-making and make it more difficult to develop rational and effective policy that serves the public interest," Myers wrote.

“It is chilling to think our state is considering policies based on a study that so seriously distorts the true picture,” Schoesler said in a press release. “These policies will impose billions of dollars in costs on Washington taxpayers, yet it appears the scientific calculations were scribbled in crayon."

He added, "This is a classic case of the misuse of science for political ends. Can we really expect rational policymaking when this kind of scaremongering is taking place?”

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith replied: "There is no dispute that inaction comes with a big price tag. These [University of Oregon study figures] are the most recent, complete numbers for Washington state and the range of impacts is consistent with the numbers we’re seeing from other reports — the most recent White House report estimates $150 billion annually in increased costs."

Frumkin and task force member Renee Klein, president of the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific, briefed the advisory group Tuesday in Seattle on the local health effects of leaving climate change and carbon emissions unchecked. "The health impacts of climate change are extraordinarily expensive," Frumkin said.

Klein said Washington has at least 100,000 children and 500,000 adults with asthma, plus 4,300 new lung cancer cases per year. Washington's asthma cases cost $73 million annually to handle with public money paying 60 percent of that price.

Frumkin said peer-reviewed studies show that increased heat-related stress on health could lead to 68 to 211 extra deaths in Seattle in 2025, and 89 to 401 extra deaths in 2045. Meanwhile, the same studies show Spokane, the Tri-Cities and Yakima could expect an extra 12 to 31 heat-stress-related deaths in 2025 and 15 to 45 extra deaths in 2045.

Carbon emissions, with their effects on temperatures and snowpacks, will lead to more droughts in farm country, he said. Studies suggest that there is a 14 percent chance each year of a water shortage occurring in Washington. That chance is expected to increase to 27 percent by 2020. Increased carbon dioxide will help weeds thrive and make herbicides less effective, he said.

Farm problems lead to higher food prices, which affect local adults and children, Frumkin said. Fifteen percent of Washington's residents already are in danger of not being able to afford good food in sufficient amounts. If food prices increase, people will tend to buy cheaper food that is higher in calories and lower in nutrients, which translates to more obesity problems, he said.

Inslee wants any proposed 2015 plan to include a way to enforce carbon emissions reduction targets set in a 2008 state law. In 2008, Washington's Legislature set a goal of reducing the state's greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming of emissions to 25 percent below Washington's 1990 level by 2035 and to 50 percent below by 2050. So far, nothing has happened.

Inslee wants the panel to identify the best ways to use market forces to reduce carbon emissions. He has said he wants the committee to consider the economic consequences of its plan addressed, along with ensuring no region suffers disproportionate impacts. He also wants the advice to include how to boost job creation while addressing climate change issues.

This panel is Inslee's second attempt at using a committee to design a plan to tackle carbon emissions. In 2013, Inslee presided over a climate-change panel of two Republican legislators and two Democrat legislators that deadlocked along party lines. The Democrats wanted to explore carbon emissions limits and cap-and-trade programs. Republican legislators seemed more interested in exploring the possibilities from adding more nuclear power and raised the possiblity of revisiting the 2008 carbon-emissions reductions goals. The current task force is made of Inslee appointees from business, labor, non-profit, governmental and environmental groups.

The advisory task force won't make any specific recommendations with figures and plans to Inslee. Instead, it will outline factors that Inslee should consider when he draws up his legislative proposal. And the Nov. 17 report will include recommendations from individual members of the task force.

The group-oriented draft recommendations include minimizing costs to businesses, designating climate-related tax money to specific budget items, ensuring that the Legislature cannot raid this tax revenue to balance the budget, spurring economic development, mitigating impacts to low-income people and reducing taxes elsewhere.

Washington's Office of Financial Management has speculated that the revenue from a cap-and-trade program or carbon emissions tax could be used to reduce business-and-operations taxes elsewhere, to shrink public utility taxes, or to provide tax credits for low-income families.

The task force's draft recommendations also say that any Inslee plan will need more economic analysis than is currently available. Jobs, trade, incomes, impacts on low-income families, gas prices and revenue predictions — factors that both parties will regard as areas for potential battles — also need more study. 


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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