Washington businesses unite on climate action

As the governor approaches key decisions on climate legislation, more than 100 businesses urge action.
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Gov. Jay Inslee, right, looks at young shellfish during a recent visit to Taylor Shellfish's Dabob Bay facility.

As the governor approaches key decisions on climate legislation, more than 100 businesses urge action.

With a snow-capped Mount Rainier as their poster child, Washington businesses have joined forces to take a stand on climate change. More than 100 businesses — from REI and Virginia Mason to Taylor Shellfish and Microsoft — launched a declaration calling for “climate action.” While they didn't know what the outcome of the November election would be when they came together, their message remains the same. “Tackling climate change,” a declaration from the group says, “is one of Washington's greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century. And it's simply the right thing to do.”

In a statement — printed on a blue, gray and white poster, colors most often associated in the Pacific Northwest with bountiful snow pack and water — the group says: There is a clear and present need for action on climate change to protect our region's natural assets, vibrant communities and growing economy."

The businesses recently endorsed the Washington Business Climate Declaration, a statement by businesses and individuals on the need for action against global warming, saying, that the Northwest firms "support using energy efficiently, investing in cleaner fuels, advancing renewable energy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

For K2 Sports, the local ski-equipment company born 51 years ago on Vashon Island, the reasons to sign onto the climate declaration were summed up in a single sentence. “We have an invested interest in snow.” For Taylor Shellfish whose family began farming shellfish in Puget Sound in the 1890s and who remain a significant economic engine in the state, the reasons are more complex. Carbon dioxide emissions are believed to have penetrated ocean waters so deeply that baby shellfish have difficulties forming shells. Carbon emissions have increased the ocean's acidity by 30 percent reducing the availability of carbonate ions essential to calcifying organisms. Ocean acidification is threatening everything from pteropods, tiny sea snails at the base of the marine food web, to shallow water corals.

Taylor has been able to help shellfish form larvae in hatcheries using sophisticated monitoring equipment to control sea chemistry. But they're not out of the woods, says Taylor's Bill Dewey. They need to get the larvae to the critical next step, metamorphosis. Recently, the shellfish company sent millions and millions of oyster larvae to a nursery facility to help them through metamorphosis so they could produce baby seeds to plant on farms. But they got very little survival. “Challenges in producing hatchery shellfish are even worse for organisms in open waters that don't have the safe harbor of a hatchery to go hide in,” Dewey says. Carbon reduction is critical to oyster survival and to the viability of the company, he says.

Virginia Mason Medical Center says it's important that the state join regional partners on climate; California and Oregon businesses have signed similar declarations. Brenna Davis, Virginia Mason's Director of Sustainability, says the American Medical Association and Centers for Disease Control have documented health impacts associated with climate change: Heart-related disorders, communicable diseases, stress associated with severe weather, food insecurity and water shortages are all aggravated by climate change. EnviroMason, the medical center's stewardship initiative, has been a part of the health center's internal culture for years, says Davis, and Virginia Mason earned an EPA Energy Star rating for reduced energy consumption.

“There's a saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second best time is now. That's kind of the position we're taking,” says Davis. Seattle Children's Hospital, she notes, has also signed the declaration.

Perry England with MacDonald-Miller, a firm that helps businesses improve their energy efficiency, says voluntary efforts just aren't good enough. England serves on Gov. Jay Inslee's Carbon Emission Reduction Task Force, slated to make a final recommendation to the governor on Monday. “The riskiest decision a company can make is to do nothing. Climate change is happening. It will continue to whether we believe it or not. This is a business opportunity.” On a national scale, says England, energy consumers spend $1.2 trillion on energy and transportation. “Out of that, upwards of 86 percent is waste that's built into our transportation systems or our buildings.” Greening transportation and fleets, adopting new technologies and becoming energy efficient are real, he says. “We can reduce our emissions just by embracing the technologies that are available.”

The Seattle Aquarium made a million dollar investment in reducing waste inside its building with upgrades to energy and water systems, using cold saltwater for cooling, natural ventilation, high efficiency boiler retrofits and solar panels in partnership with Seattle City's Light's Community Solar Project. As a result, says England, “they're saving somewhere north of 20 percent in energy consumption, which over time will pay for the investment.” If the state were more focused on efforts to eliminate waste in buildings and in the transportation sector, he says, productivity and economic development could improve — without any additional spending. At the same time, he adds, “It's going to benefit the climate and help our communities because we're going to grow our labor force and the kind of labor we're going to grow is going be green labor.”

The opportunity for localized and regional renewable fuels is untapped, says Imperium Renewables founder John Plaza. In the seven years since the bio-diesel company was started, it says it has helped offset 3.5 billion pounds of CO2 and provided over 30 million in economic development to the state, a vast majority for payroll. “The key for us is how we can create diverse energy solutions for the transportation sector,” says Plaza. Electricity has plenty of new options with wind and solar, he adds, “but fuel requires a liquid and right now the only real solutions are hydrocarbons.” A cost-effective regional alternative will be the best strategy. What makes the most sense, he suggests, is looking at high-volume waste streams. Municipal solid waste that ends up in landfills is one potential source. Wood residue is another waste source that could be used in producing biofuels. Thirty percent of a tree that's harvested in a forest ends up as sawdust. “That's a tremendous resource,” says Plaza. Another could be agricultural waste such as wheat and straw. "If you add that all up, there's hundreds of millions of gallons of biofuel potential just in Washington alone.”

The climate declaration falls short of making specific recommendations the state or governor should take. Other signatories include such diverse Pacific Northwest players as the Seattle Mariners, Whole Foods, Red Hook Brewery, Sellen Construction, Foss Maritime and Saltchuk, a transportation and distribution company.

MacDonald-Miller's England says the consensus of the governor's 21-member task force is to recommend the state implement a carbon tax or cap and trade system. Ten states, much of the European Union, British Columbia and Quebec have one or the other. A carbon tax is a way to put a price on emissions. A carbon tax sets the price of carbon dioxide emissions and allows the market to determine the quantity of emission reductions. Cap-and-trade sets the quantity of emissions reductions and lets the market determine the price companies pay to be allowed to emit carbon. It will be up to the state to decide which of the two are better.

Analysis by the state's Office of Financial Management shows that even a high carbon price would have only a modest and on balance positive impact on the state's economy. The analysis, says KC Golden with Climate Solutions, who also serves on the Inslee task force, assumed that revenue would be “recycled” with policies like tax cuts for industries facing emissions restrictions or a carbon tax and a working-families tax credit. It also assumed no other policy changes or no new innovation. In other words, it was very conservative, he says. 

The Washington Business Climate Declaration is a companion to the Climate Declaration, a nationwide call to action launched in 2013 by Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability advocacy organization and its business network, Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy. To date, the Ceres declaration has more than 1,000 signatories. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.