Washington Governor Puts Focus on Climate Goals, and Less on Debate
OLYMPIA, Wash. — In his office, Gov. Jay Inslee keeps a framed image of a stand of magenta paintbrush, an alpine meadow flower and a signature species in Washington, that he photographed while hiking with his wife in Olympic National Park. The magenta paintbrush is threatened by global warming, and the photograph is a reminder, Mr. Inslee said, of all the things that are at risk.
But then he paused and said, no, a beautiful blossom was not the point: The deeper reason he is pushing for tough new air-quality policies is to combat worsening health problems, like asthma in children, that are caused by pollution.
"It's not the flowers," he said. "It's kids' lungs."
The line encapsulates Mr. Inslee's practical approach to advancing one of the most ambitious environmental programs in the country. He has proposed collecting a new charge on emissions from oil refineries, power plants and other industries that would reap an estimated $1.3 billion in the first year. But in contrast to similar systems in California and the Northeast, energy experts said, Mr. Inslee's plan would use most of the new revenue for education and transportation rather than on climate or energy projects.
By linking the money to broadly popular bread-and-butter programs, he hopes to build support for an antipollution policy that faces stiff opposition from Republicans and some industry groups. He is also trying to solve two problems with one policy. Washington has been cited for contempt by the state's highest court, which said the government violated the State Constitution by underfunding schools by billions of dollars.
"You don't even have to allude to climate change," Mr. Inslee, a first-term Democrat, said in an interview. "One can support this simply on the fact that you want to support the education of your children."
Though the fate of the plan is unclear — the Republicans who control the State Senate have vowed to fight it, and Democrats, a majority in the House, have not pledged an all-out defense — it underscores how Mr. Inslee operates. He is less interested in winning the debate over climate change than in achieving his goals.
"It's really unfortunate that it came to be seen, by some people at least, through a partisan political lens," Mr. Inslee said of the climate debate. "But I do think the ice is breaking."
Critics are not so sure. "Governor Inslee wants to try to drive this global warming agenda in a state where you can really say we are already leading the way," said State Senator Doug Ericksen, a Republican and chairman of the chamber's Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. Adding carbon charges now, he said, would hurt the economy and kill jobs.
But to environmentalists — who have occasionally complained that Mr. Inslee is too cautious — the carbon plan is groundbreaking, making him a national leader of what they say is a quiet movement to find practical solutions to daunting environmental problems without regard to politics.
For instance, former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Republican, backed a big wind-power transmission project in his state, even while saying climate science was unsettled. Georgia reduced carbon emissions from electricity production by 35 percent from 2005 to 2012, more than twice the national average, and its Republican-controlled legislature recently passed a bill expanding incentives for homeowners to install rooftop solar panels.
"There are just more concrete steps being taken," said Keya Chatterjee, the executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, a nonprofit advocacy group. "We're affected — what are we going to do about it," she said of the new efforts.
Shooting for results, even if sometimes incremental, was a hallmark of Mr. Inslee's 15 years in Congress. He favored greater wilderness protections on federal land, but when that was not politically feasible, he shifted to the middle ground, defending rules that discouraged development of roads in forests and on other lands. Those rules were ultimately left intact by the Supreme Court in a 2012 ruling.
In a debate over water quality as governor, he supported what he called a balanced plan — tightening some pollution rules while leaving others alone.
"Jay has always had a clear eye on the bull's-eye, the goal he's trying to achieve, and also an understanding of what he has to do to get there," said Bill Arthur, who has watched Mr. Inslee for 30 years at the Sierra Club, where he is the deputy Western campaign director for the Beyond Coal campaign. "He's smart and savvy enough to know, 'I've also got to speak in a language and speak in terms that can resonate with a larger contingent of people.' "
Mr. Inslee, 64, a fifth-generation Washingtonian who grew up in the Seattle area, said he owed part of his appreciation of the natural world to his father, Frank. Frank Inslee, a high school science teacher, often led the family on volunteer expeditions to replant alpine meadows on the slopes of Mount Rainier, the glacier-clad volcano south of Seattle.
But money for education, a key to Mr. Inslee's carbon plan, was also the starting place for his political career in the 1980s, when he was working as a lawyer in a small town in central Washington that needed to build a new high school. The fight over the school's funding led him to run for his first public office, in the legislature. He jokes that now, in trying to link emissions to education, he is back where he started.
His plan is also a kind of throwback, environmental researchers said, to familiar — and politically popular — taxes long applied to alcohol or tobacco.
"We're starting as a society to see carbon emissions as a bad, and by framing it the way he has, he brings it into the sin-tax way of seeing things," said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University who studies environmental politics. "Inslee is packaging the policy in a way that makes it more politically palatable."
Mr. Inslee's opponents, especially in the State Senate, remain unconvinced. Washington, they said, already is an environmental leader; the percentage of its power that comes from renewable energy is among the highest in the nation. Hydroelectricity generated by dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries dominates the power grid of Washington and the Northwest.
And long before Mr. Inslee was elected in 2012, they said, the state was reducing its dependence on carbon-based energy. Washington had the biggest percentage reduction in carbon dioxide emission from power generation of any state between 2005 and 2012, according to the Georgetown Climate Center, a research arm of Georgetown University Law School.
In March, the Senate passed a transportation-funding bill of its own, with a phased-in, 11-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax. The House passed its own plan — different from the Senate's vision but similar in leaving out any mention of Mr. Inslee's carbon proposal as a funding mechanism.
A spokesman for the governor, David Postman, said that the means to pay for the Legislature's commitments had not been determined, and that Mr. Inslee would continue to promote the carbon bill as an answer. "There are apparently a handful of members who need to be convinced, and the governor will certainly be talking with those folks," Mr. Postman said in an email.
Under Mr. Inslee's program, the state would set an overall cap on carbon emissions and require the state's biggest polluters to pay for each metric ton of pollution emitted. The price would be set at an auction, and buyers of emission allowances could sell the amounts they did not need.
The governor's allies on environmental issues are already talking about taking his ideas directly to voters in a referendum, perhaps in 2016, if the Legislature does not pass them. Mr. Inslee, in the interview, declined to say what his next steps might be — or his strategy in the final weeks of the legislative session, which ends in late April. He said only that he remained deeply optimistic.
As a case in point, he cited a recent discussion in Seattle with several dozen college students from schools around the state. The group was chatting about everything from tuition to the arts, when Mr. Inslee lobbed a question from left field: How many of them believed that humans were significantly contributing to global climate change?
Everyone raised a hand.
"Unanimity is pretty amazing," he said, shaking his head.To continue reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/us/politics/washington-governor-puts-focus-on-climate-goals-and-less-on-debate.html