Late last year, while stumping in support of his state budget proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee touched upon the difficulty of thinking outside the box. Innovative ideas, the governor noted, require time to take hold, grow roots, and extend their branches. In other words, sometimes patience is required for ambitious legislative agendas.
All of that is relevant as Inslee takes a reasoned and measured approach in pursuit of his environmental goals for the state. On Tuesday, the governor directed the state Department of Ecology to develop a plan for capping carbon emissions throughout Washington, and to increase enforcement of existing pollution laws. “Carbon pollution and the climate change it causes pose a very real and existential threat to our state,” Inslee said in a statement.
This is headline-worthy news, and the mention of climate change is certain to draw disagreement from some circles. Yet Inslee’s action reflects the patient statesmanship the contentious issue requires. According to the governor’s office, the plan to cap emissions would ensure that the state meets carbon limits set by the Legislature in 2008 and signed into law by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire. It also will take about a year for the Department of Ecology to devise new rules, giving the Legislature time to address the issue next year. And, finally, Inslee said he will not pursue a low-carbon fuel standard, which was the subject of a “poison pill” in the transportation package passed this year by lawmakers.
The fuel standard Inslee had proposed would be designed to reduce carbon emitted from vehicles by 10 percent over 10 years. But legislators painted him into a corner when they included a provision in the $16.2 billion transportation bill that would transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from non-vehicle programs to roads funds if the governor issues a fuel standard by executive order. It was smart politics from those opposed to the fuel standard; it is wise for Inslee to drop his pursuit of the standard for now. Had he swallowed that poison pill, Inslee would have coughed up dollars for projects that expand upon his desired goal of environmental responsibility, and he would have expended much of the political capital he garnered in signing the bill.
Instead, Inslee is pursuing his climate goals incrementally, which is the pragmatic approach. Directing the state to devise ways to cap emissions differs from his preferred cap-and-trade program in that it will not charge emitters for carbon pollution, and it sets an agenda for the state while leaving room for input from the Legislature. “Moving forward on a regulatory limit on pollution will ensure that Washington addresses carbon pollution and maintains a robust investment in transit, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, ferries and other important transportation choices,” Inslee said.
That investment is crucial to the future of Washington. While critics fear negative economic impacts from such attention to environmental concerns, the overriding question is what kind of state we wish to create for future generations. As we move forward in assuring that a quality environment is there for our grandchildren, we also must keep looking for that sweet spot that also assures a strong job market.
Inslee is on the right side of history regarding carbon emissions, but history often moves at a glacial pace. It requires time for ideas to be cultivated and watered and tended to before they are ready for harvest. His action this week amounts to the planting of seeds that now require care to ensure they blossom for the benefit of all.