Tim Sheldon: Opposing Inslee’s climate proposals is a bipartisan affair

Oct 21, 2015

This guest column was published in Crosscut, Oct. 21, 2015. In June 2016, the Inslee Administration released a new plan to impose carbon-cap regulations without a vote of the Legislature.

By Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch

A couple of weeks ago, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new carbon-emissions reduction plan and declared any lawmaker who opposes it a “fear monger.” He said opponents are joining ranks with “the climate deniers.” And he blamed Republicans in the Legislature this year for failing to act on his big plan to restrict and tax carbon.

Well, I don’t think the governor is giving his own party enough credit. It wasn’t the Republicans who killed his grandiose cap-and-trade proposal. Democrats killed it before the Republicans even had a chance. The majority Democrats in the House held five hearings on his bill last session, and sensibly decided not to take a vote. Unfortunately, they forgot to make a big public announcement. So I want the entire state to know what a debt it owes my fellow Democrats in the state House of Representatives for repudiating the governor so thoroughly.

It couldn’t have been easy. None of this fits into the simplistic political storyline so many people are trying to sell these days. You have good Democrats trying to save the planet and evil Republicans standing in the way. There’s no middle ground — anyone who disagrees must be anti-science. Or worse, a “denier.” The trouble with this narrative is it just isn’t true. People in both parties recognize there are big problems with these overweening schemes to remake our economy and our society. Democrats are as leery as anyone. It’s just that most of us don’t like to go public with our misgivings.

The latest development is that the governor is ordering the Department of Ecology to impose another poorly thought-out carbon program – that’s one way to avoid a vote of the Legislature. I’m not sure he will get away with it, but it’s no wonder he’s trying.

These high-handed schemes aim to make it so expensive to use fossil fuels that people will look for alternatives. This will eliminate many high-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. The average citizen also will be hurt when the governor’s plan drives up the price of gasoline and electricity. The middle class and the working poor will find it harder to get by. My party prides itself on compassion for the poor, so this doesn’t sit well with many of us.

Something else ought to make my fellow Democrats uneasy. Our governor is creating expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled. We’ve heard him make impassioned speeches against climate change. I am sure many people are impressed. But those of us who are in the business of making speeches know this is a little like speaking in favor of brotherly love and kittens. The governor never tells us how his policies will reduce droughts or forest fires or beetle infestations or all those other things he likes to talk about. That’s because they won’t.

Even if we could change the world climate with an immediate reduction in carbon emissions, Washington simply doesn’t produce enough to make a difference – just two-tenths of one percent of global output annually. At best the governor’s proposals would reduce a small fraction of that, and any reductions in this state will instantly be offset by increases on the other side of the globe.

I am not saying this is cause for inaction. But it is an argument against massively costly schemes that will cause hardship for the general public. There are good economic and environmental reasons to pursue new technologies I think will provide the ultimate solutions. What if we can speed along these developments while avoiding great upheaval for our economy?

That was the idea we offered in the Senate this year. One proposal, Senate Bill 5735, would significantly improve our state’s renewable-energy law by allowing utilities to invest in programs that reduce carbon. We might reduce carbon output five percent without increasing electric bills a dime. We also offered a series of bills to ease our state’s transition to promising nuclear-reactor technologies, something that must be considered in any rational discussion of the issue.

But I am getting the disheartening feeling the governor’s push has nothing to do with climate change, carbon reduction or even science. It seems to be more about creating a wedge issue for Democrats and bashing the other party over the head. And perhaps, about creating an excuse for a tax increase.

I am glad my fellow Democratic lawmakers weren’t willing to play this cynical game – and I just want to say, bravo, well done.