Opinion Columns & Blogs

The environment isn’t a view; it’s a reality

I grew up in Illinois, on the edge of a ravine that was home to lots of poison ivy. One spring when I was a kid, some poison ivy emerged right at the foot of the back stairs. Every morning and every night, when I went down those stairs to make sure the rabbits had food and water, I checked the poison ivy. Green leaves, slight reddish stems, just growing.

One night, overcome with the mysterious, invisible power of the plant, I picked a few leaves and rubbed them on my forearms, my eyebrows, my stomach. The leaves against my skin felt like any other soft green leaves. Nothing happened.

The next morning, I was in trouble. Eyes swollen shut, arms and stomach itching beyond belief, I didn’t even have to ask to stay home from school.

I had had poison ivy before. But I had never seen a plant “give” it to me — I hadn’t actually witnessed the plant’s danger. Doubt about what I couldn’t see led to a terrible case of poison ivy. Cultivated skepticism about the yet to be seen effects of climate change is leading us into a much worse situation.

On April 29, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Washington Carbon Pollution Reduction and Clean Energy Act. In the introduction to his executive order, the governor cites three key areas of risk for our state if we don’t act now: changes in water availability, sea level rise and ocean acidification, and increased forest mortality.

He also cites a study by the University of Oregon estimating that if we don’t act now, Washingtonians will pay almost $10 billion a year after 2020 to address the impacts of climate change on water supplies, public health, coastal and storm damage, and wild fires.

The act establishes a new Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce charged with developing a cap on carbon pollution emissions and a market mechanism to meet those limits. Critics say this won’t work — cap-and-trade systems in other jurisdictions have led to robust markets without declines in emissions.

Others complain the governor has gone too far. On April 30, John Stang reported on crosscut.com that Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, and former member of the bi-partisan Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup expressed concern that the governor picked committee members who “lean toward the governor’s environmental views.”

The environment isn’t a view. It’s a biological reality that makes addressing climate change a moral imperative.

Inslee said as much in his press conference announcing his climate executive order: “Wrecking our future and our home with carbon pollution is just wrong.”

Reinforcing the timeliness of Inslee’s Climate Executive Order is the report just released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, “Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” The conclusions in this report echo the concerns expressed in the executive order.

Like Inslee, the White House is also being criticized for going too far. Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, is reported as saying that the president will get “loud cheers from the liberal elites — from the kind of people who leave giant carbon footprints and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.”

McConnell may or may not believe that climate change is real. What is real is that McConnell has accepted more than $2 million from fossil-fuel companies since 2000. I was skeptical about the effects of a small green plant when I was in elementary school — I am far more skeptical about the ability of a political leader who is subsidized by the fossil fuel industry to turn around and regulate that industry.

Inslee hasn’t gone too far. In fact, we need to go further. A cap-and-trade system with a strong cap may work, but a carbon tax would work better.

Electric vehicles make sense, but buses and trains make more sense. The Cato Institute claims that the current climate-change reports are “biased toward pessimism.” In fact, reluctance to address climate change and carbon pollution reflects such a bias. The Climate Executive Order, and the new national report, reflect a bias for the future.

Inslee hasn’t gone far enough, but at least he’s going in the right direction.