In Our View: Inslee's Climate Balancing Act

Governor's strategy on greenhouse gas emissions preferable to ignoring issue

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While any mention of climate change is guaranteed to generate vociferous discussion, there also is another certainty in the debate: Nothing is accomplished when issues are ignored.

That is what lends gravitas to Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order directing a task force to develop a market-based program to limit carbon emissions in Washington. That it what lends importance to his directive for state agencies to work with utilities to move away from coal-powered electricity, and what gives weight to his push for cleaner transportation fuels. Months after a bipartisan legislative panel deadlocked — along party lines — on strategies to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, the fact is that no movement had been registered in addressing a vital issue. As Inslee said Tuesday in announcing the creation of the task force: “We’re doing this because the law requires it.”

Yes, it does. Washington law dictates that the state must return to 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020, with greater reductions scheduled beyond that. Not that everybody is happy about it. “Today, Gov. Inslee did an end-run around the state Legislature and moved closer to imposing massive regulations that will choke job creation and add huge energy costs to the budgets of average families,” came the quick response from state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

That pretty much sums up a contentious issue that falls mostly along party lines. Inslee, a Democrat, has said that he wants to be the nation’s green-energy governor, and late last year he joined the governors from California and Oregon, along with British Columbia’s environmental minister, in forming the Pacific Coast Collaborative, a group designed to organize clean-energy policies.

The collaborative could have a vast impact, representing areas with a combined Gross Domestic Product of $2.8 trillion, which would make it the world’s fifth-largest economy if it were a separate nation. The compact thus far has been bereft of ideas, but one example of possible action was presented recently with a suggestion that the states could develop a consistent fueling infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Inslee’s order states that any program must set a cap on carbon emissions while helping consumers, workers, and businesses transition away from carbon-based fuels. That might be a Pollyannaish goal, and the vagueness invites resistance. “Today’s executive order is evidence that the governor plans to move forward with high-cost solutions,” Ericksen said.

Yet the importance is that Inslee is moving forward. He is examining ways to protect the environment, while opponents remain mired in obstructionism. Regardless of one’s feelings about the legitimacy of climate change — more than 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientific papers between 1991 and 2011 concluded that human activity has led to global warming — the fact is that altering behaviors can be beneficial for the planet, climate change or not. Reducing emissions would be a boon to the health of both humans and plant life, and reasonable steps can be taken to facilitate that reduction.

Not that any of it is easy. The oft-stated concern from critics is that environmental concerns will overwhelm economic needs, that regulations will stifle growth. Inslee’s task force wisely includes labor and community groups in addition to representatives from major businesses. There is a balance to be found when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, but it will not be discovered if the issue is ignored.