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Legislature goes nowhere with climate change: what must be done to motivate legislators to take action at the state level?

Maybe next year…

It’s hard not to feel discouraged. In December 2013, Washington State’s Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup (CLEW), created by the 2013 Washington State Legislature to develop “a state program of actions and policies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” presented their opposing sets of recommendations—and now that the session has ended, we can only hope that they will continue their agreement to keep talking. Maybe next session something will happen.

Meanwhile, The Olympian reports that gas-powered leaf blowers will be banned from the Capitol Campus because they are noisy and because of their emissions. That’s sensible—no one likes to be around leaf-blowers, and it’s never clear where the leaves that get blown go anyway—but we need more from our state government.  Climate change threatens everything and everyone. Action is required.

The tough question is—action by whom?

Fortunately, the Congressional Progressive Caucus just released its new budget, the Better Off Budget. Reading the Progressive Caucus budget proposal is like reading a primer on what effective government can do. Two of the environmental policy aims represented in the Progressive Caucus budget are putting a price on carbon pollution by instituting a carbon tax and repealing subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

Both ideas were discussed in the Washington State legislature. The expert’s report delivered to the CLEW workgroup last October examined both a carbon tax and a cap and trade option. The carbon tax option made more sense and resulted in a bigger impact in terms of reducing green house gases, particularly since the transportation sector is the largest GHG polluter in WA state. That idea went nowhere this session. Nor did a bill re-introduced from last year’s session (HB 2038) to close the “big oil loophole” our state’s own fossil fuel company subsidy program.

Better government responses elsewhere

Some counties have made significant progress. Take King County. In his State of the County Address in February 2014, King County Executive Dow Constantine reviewed the effects of climate change on the county—80% of surveyed streams and rivers in King County exceeded the state temperature standard to protect salmon habitat; snowpack in the Cascade Range has decreased by 25% since the 1950’s; all major rivers in King County have shown higher flow and increased flood risk during fall and significantly lower flow in summer; Puget Sound has risen over 8 inches in the last century and local waters are becoming more acidic.

“We can no longer wait,” Constantine said. The related policy brief, “Confronting Climate Change,” lists what King County is doing—greening commutes, promoting smart growth, saving energy and reducing climate pollution, collaborating with others and building resilient communities. How can Constantine be so outspoken, so clear in his leadership? He won the last election handily, 78% to 21% for his Republican contender. The county council is predominantly Democratic, too.

States other than Washington are acting. Hawaii, for instance. In January 2014, Democrats, who control the Hawaiian House and the Senate, introduced a joint package bill that included the creation of an interagency advisory board to help the state prepare for climate change. Talking about climate change is normal. In the March 2014 edition of For Kaua’i, a free newsmagazine, Ruby Pap, a Coastal Land Use Extension Agent from the University of Hawai’i, focused her science column on the consequences of climate change for Hawaiians: “in addition to flooding, we can expect to see beach erosion, and saltwater intrusion into wetlands and groundwater. Homes, critical infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and other facilities will be threatened in increasing numbers.” Besides preparing for these events, Pap suggests that readers become involves in Hawaii’s smart growth initiatives to reduce automobile use.

Shifting public perception, driving political change

Given the scope of climate change and the need for systemic action, how can we compel our governments to act? If we wait until the sea level rises enough to wet the feet of major decision makers, it will be too late. Somehow, a case has to be made that current evidence and current understanding of what the evidence means for the future is enough to act upon. It has to become normal to talk about climate change and what we can do with and about it.

In February 2014, political activist Jim Hightower addressed the Progressive Congress, an organization founded by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and told them to be bolder: “don’t forget that cultural shifts produce political change, not the other way around…The great progressive movements… have advanced not only by good organizing, but by a steady altering of the public’s perception.”

The world’s largest general science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), came out this month with a new strategy to make talking about climate change normal. It launched its “What We Know” public information campaign. The campaign stresses three messages: climate change is real; climate can change abruptly; and we need to act swiftly to reduce both the cost and the risk of inaction. The AAAS’s move is important. More of us need to be clear about how climate change is going to affect us, and what we need to do to slow it. It can’t be a problem for experts only anymore.

The clearer we are about what climate change means, the more compelling our stories will be. The more of us who tell them, the more likely it is that we can compel the state legislature to act—next year.

Emily Lardner teaches at Evergreen State College and co-directs The Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education, a public service of the college. 


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