Washington Governor Prepares To Make Moral Case For Carbon Reduction

By Austin Jenkins

Washington Governor Jay Inslee is preparing to take action on an issue that could secure his legacy or complicate his re-election chances. He wants to cap carbon, the biggest culprit in greenhouse gas emissions in Washington. It’s a controversial and potentially costly idea. But the Democrat believes long-term it’s an economic and, even, moral imperative.

It’s no secret that Jay Inslee is passionate about combatting climate change. But it was a surprise last January when Inslee’s inauguration turned into a coronation of sorts. This was Earth Day founder Denis Hayes speaking in the Rotunda of the state capitol.

Denis Hayes: “Jay Inslee is the first political chief executive in American history to be elected principally on a platform of combatting climate disruption (applause).”

Hayes didn’t stop there.

Denis Hayes: “More than any other president or governor before him, Jay has an electoral mandate on this issue.”

Others would say Inslee has a legal mandate. By law, Washington is supposed to reduce all of its greenhouse gas emissions including carbon to 1990 levels by 2020. That’s just six years from now. In his inaugural address, Inslee called climate change a “grave and immediate danger”

Jay Inslee: “On climate change we have settled the scientific controversy. That’s resolved (applause). What remains now is how we respond to the challenge.”

It’s been more than a year since that speech. And Inslee may soon announce how to plans to respond. For months, he’s been signaling that a cap on carbon emissions is what’s needed. Here’s Inslee at a recent news conference.

Jay Inslee: “It is clear to me that in some sense, in some way we’ll need to have some restriction on carbon pollution.”

But what would that cap look like? There are any number of policies Inslee could pursue – none politically easy. Still it looks like there’s one Inslee thinks he can implement unilaterally: a low-carbon fuel standard. But that could drive up the cost of a gallon of gas. And that concerns Republicans like state Senator Curtis King.

Curtis King: “You gotta look at the impact that that type of thing is going to have on how our businesses in the state of Washington can remain competitive.”

Inslee promises any climate change policies he pursues will be thoroughly costed-out. But it’s the public, not lawmakers Inslee will ultimately have to convince. Here’s one big reason why.

Gasoline powered cars are the single greatest source of carbon emissions in Washington. The question is: would drivers pay more or change their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint? My informal pump-side survey at a gas station south of Olympia produced a mix of answers. Shyler Bardfield is a yes.

Shyler Bardfield: “I could pay a little more if it meant helping the environment and solving problems bit by bit, I’d definitely to that.”

But Torey Krieger is wary.

Torey Krieger: “I don’t know. I would think about being more fuel efficient before increasing the price of gas.”

And then there’s Dennis Teague who definitely does not trust the governor to make these decisions.

Dennis Teague: “He better have a group of non-political scientists.”

That’s a really important point says Larry Pryor at the University of Southern California. He’s an expert on climate change communication. Pryor believes scientists are underutilized as evangelists for policies to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Larry Pryor: “They should be organized, they should be brought into this discussion in a big way and the public will pay attention to them.”

The challenge with carbon emissions is you can’t seem them. Pryor says that makes the role of scientists all the more important if Governor Inslee hopes to convince the public carbon emissions are a real problem.

Larry Pryor: “It’s quite rational for people to say ‘we want more proof, we want more certainty that what is being proposed to be enacted is actually going to do good.’”

Especially if it’s going to cost them more in the wallet and the benefits will be hard, if not impossible, to see. State Senator Doug Ericksen is the Republican chair of the Energy committee. He questions whether Washington should even try to meet the 1990 carbon emission levels target. That’s because about 75-percent of Washington’s energy comes from hydropower which doesn’t have a carbon footprint.

Doug Ericksen: “I mean if you compare us to Indiana or Ohio which are heavy coal states, compared to us being a heavy hydro state, we shouldn’t penalize ourselves because of our hydroelectricity.”

This is where the art of persuasion comes in. Richard Perloff is the author of a book called The Dynamics of Persuasion. He says the trick for Inslee is to appeal to the public’s desire to the right or moral thing, but avoid coming off like a Jimmy Carter-esque moralist.

Richard Perloff: “If he can grab the moral agenda and actually talk in global terms then he doesn’t seem like he’s self-interested and he seems something of a – to use the Michelle Obama term – a knucklehead, but a very idealistic knucklehead and people say, you know, I like this guy.”

Inslee’s never been short on idealism. But he’s traditionally made an economic argument for addressing climate change. Now it appears he’s ready to take a page from Perloff’s book. The governor told me recently that he’s prepared to make the moral case for capping carbon emissions.

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