The 6th Learning Session. Time to Get Political

Political issues & climate mitigation

Washington State Capitol building with cherry trees in blossom.

Lauren Breynaert, who lives in Port Angeles, is the Climate Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy director, a Washington State coalition with a focus on building a resilient climate justice movement and passing equitable policy solutions to the climate crisis.

Founded in 2014, The Climate Alliance includes a vast and diverse group of members. Breynaert explained, “The coalition was founded on the belief that the climate crisis requires sound systems transformation for energy sources and political and racial power structures in our economic system.”

The core principles necessary for climate policy include:

  • Equitable representation for the hardest-hit communities
  • A just transition for workers, especially fossil fuel workers
  • Recognize Tribal sovereignty
  • Reduce climate pollution by holding polluters accountable.
  • Do not increase costs for people of lower incomes
  • Provide financial assistance for people of low-income households.

In 2018, the Climate Alliance introduced Initiative 1631, also known as the “Protect Washington Act” to create a fee for carbon pollution that would raise one billion dollars per year to invest in carbon reduction programs. It was one of the first significant proposals in the US and Washington State. Thirty-five percent of the fees would have been reinvested in communities most impacted by carbon pollution. It would also fund worker transition and protection. Through consultation with tribes and their free, prior, and informed consent, as well as mandated participation on the oversight board, Tribal sovereignty would be recognized. Sadly, the oil industry spent thirty-one million dollars to fight this initiative, and it did not pass. However, Breynaert noted the policy “created a blueprint for equitable climate policy for future legislative sessions.”

In 2019 the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) was singed into law by Governor Jay Inslee, and was seen as one of the more rigorous clean electricity laws in the nation. By 2045 Washington State’s energy grid will have transitioned to 100% clean energy. Coal will be phased out by 2025. This bill required incentives for union labor and union contractors for clean energy providers. Breynaert explained “the three pillars” of strong worker protection were found in this bill because it addressed systematic and economic inequality, and reduced climate pollution.

The Washington Clean Buildings Law was also passed in 2019 and reduces 20 percent of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions created by the built environment by 2035. It does this by overhauling our state building code standards by setting strong requirements for new commercial buildings o meet strong energy efficiency standards and electric vehicle readiness requirements. Natural gas utilities are also required to become more energy-efficient.

Currently, the climate crisis includes economic, immigration, health and environment crises all in one. “We cannot solve the climate crisis without simultaneously increasing wages, making housing more affordable, reducing health disparity, and reducing income inequality,” stated Breynaert.

The Climate Alliance is calling on Legislators to enact bold relief and climate resilient policies that invest in the long-term resilience of members and workers in low-income communities, communities of color and tribal nations across our state. The top priorities for this year include passing the Healthy Environment for All Act, and updating the Growth Management Act. She also encouraged the investment in a clean and just transportation system.

Eric de Place is the Director of the Thin Green Line Program at the Sightline Institute. He explained the history of fossil fuels transportation policies, why they are needed, and how they link to other carbon emissions reduction policies and strategies. “Washington State emitted 100 million metric tons of carbon this year,” Said dePlace. Eighty-five percent of that carbon came from fossil fuels and could be replaced with clean fuels. Fossils fuels are heavy, take up space, and are difficult to transport.

De Place believes “the movement and transportation of fossil fuels is the key to understanding how our energy economy works and therefore how our climate economy works.”

De Place provided an overview of fossil fuels and acknowledged their benefits, starting with oil that is refined for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for transportation. It’s also processed into petrochemicals like plastics. Natural gas provides heat in buildings and it, too, is processed into petrochemicals to make fertilizer and plastics. Coal is on its way out because it can’t compete with other forms of energy, de Place noted. It is burned in power plants to generate electricity, and used in industrial processes such as making steel cement.

Refineries, powerplants, and pipelines are not significant for Washington because we rely mostly on hydropower. Washington has 5 oil refineries on Puget Sound, two small oil pipelines, and some “product” pipelines that carry refined oil products of diesel and jet fuel. There are also Marine vessels transporting oil and liquified natural gas in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. A fraction of Washington’s electricity is generated by natural gas power plants and natural gas pipelines run under some city streets. Natural gas also provides some heat to buildings.

Historically, Washington’s energy economy was not important. Washington does not produce oil or gas and does not mine coal. In the last ten years Washington began to play an important role in the energy picture driven largely by states to our east with fracking operations extracting oil and natural gas to be transported through Washington to its biggest markets in Asia.

Proposals for the biggest coal trains, oil trains, oil pipelines, petrochemical refineries, and natural gas pipelines threatened to turn our state into “a place that looks more like Houston,” he said. Allowing these proposals would increase Washington’s emissions from 100 million metric tons to 800 or more likely 1200 million metric tons, de Place warned.

Another example provided by de Place was a proposal for coal mined in Wyoming, exported through Washington to Asia, would cause as much carbon pollution as a year’s worth of gasoline consumed in almost half the US states. De Place stated just building clean energy projects is not enough, and “decarbonization is the only correct approach.” De Place believes the key to reducing carbon emissions is to “stop expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and carefully and systematically retire and dismantle it.”

Oil refinery with storage tanks.

David Mendoza is the Director of Advocacy and Engagement for the WA chapter of The Nature Conservancy. His presentation focused on environmental justice policies and opportunities in the 2021 Legislative session. There is a need for equity through all systems, Mendoza stated. In the early 80’s the concept of environmental justice centered on health disparities resulting from pollution or living near toxic sites. Climate justice became a part of this developing idea to mitigate impacts from climate change.

Environmental Justice is the belief that where you live, your income, race, or language ability should not determine how healthy or safe you are,”

The environmental justice movement was believed to have started in North Carolina by Black people opposed to a toxic garbage dump built in their rural neighborhood. In 1994 then-President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 to address environmental justice in minority populations and low-income populations, but it was never enforced. Twenty years later, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some type of environmental justice law, executive order, or policy.

The Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map developed by the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) and partners across Washington provides a useful tool, but there remains a need for an agency focused on environmental justice.

Mao of Washington State's environmental disparities.

The Washington Environmental Health Disparities map took nineteen indicators and ranked them to show the actual impacts. Communities of color were the highest-ranked for disparities on all levels, including mortality and poverty levels. Mendoza’s goal was to impact the government with a powerful tool to show what was happening. The Healthy Environment for All Act (HEAL) is poised to provide these tools using the disparities map and the following definition of Environmental Justice.

The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race. color, national origin or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies including focusing on addressing disproportionate environmental and health impacts by prioritizing highly impacted communities, equitably distributing resources and benefits, and eliminating harm.”

The policies also included environmental principles to set measurable goals and provide recommendations. A toolkit was developed to improve this process. A permanent interagency workgroup of relevant agency staff that includes members representing overburdened communities was a part of the plan. It needs to be incorporated into government structures, systems, and policies, specifically environmental laws, and include dedicated environmental staff in state agencies.

Mendoza provided further recommendations to increase equity, including investing in businesses owned by minorities, women, and veterans, and studying reparations. The ability to enforce these recommendations and the inclusion of “Supplemental Environmental Projects” (SEPs) in settlement agreements is needed.

Legislation Incorporating Aspects of EJ Taskforce Recommendations

Tim Trohimovich is the Director of Planning and Law at Futurewise and presented on Community Organizing and the Growth Management Act and how the GMA supports climate mitigation. He started by explaining the Act, which is a state-wide law that manages planning in Washington State. It helped standardize the state policies on growth management by county and expanded the tools needed to regulate it.

Growth Management Act map to show counties that are required to fully plan, have opted in to fully plan and Critical Area and Resource Land (CARL) counties.

Green Counties are required to fully plan

Blue Counties opted in and are required to fully plan

Grey Counties ae CARL counties

Trohimovich explained the full plan requires counties and cities to use county-wide policies that designate and protect critical areas, conserve agricultural, forest, and mineral resource lands, and designate urban growth areas. They must also prepare and use the comprehensive plan and develop regulations with a vision for the future. Every eight or ten years, these plans must be updated with continuous public involvement.

Critical Area and Resource Land (CARL) counties identify and conserve critical areas and designate their agricultural lands without the GMA plan.

The benefit of the Growth Management Act in reducing GHG pollution is to set goals to reduce sprawl, encourage efficient multimodal transportation systems and protect the environment. It conserves critical areas that can sequester carbon, including farms, forests, wetlands, and marine habitats. Planning requirements in cities support transit and promote physical activity.

Failures to comply with the GMA can be appealed, stated Trohimovich. An amendment to the GMA is currently proposed with HB 1099 because “more is needed to combat climate change,” he said. This bill would require ten counties to reduce GHG emissions, and vehicle miles traveled. All counties following the full GMA plan would need to prepare for climate hazards. The WA State Department of Commerce would review these climate elements. Plans for environmental justice and avoiding health disparities would also be required.

Trohimovich feels optimistic about this bill passing because of its sponsors and community organizing. A coalition is forming to support HB 1099 and other complementary bills on housing and environmental justice. Extensive community organizing will include outreach for education and contacting legislators, including testifying at hearings.

Dr. Vandana Asthana is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Eastern Washington University. Her presentation on WA’s Climate Action in the Broader International Context explained how Washington can be a leader in the US for climate change action, how policies can lead to benefits outside of WA State, and how our state’s goals fit within the broader international policy conversations about climate change.

Dr. Asthana explained it wasn’t until 1994 at the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change that nations acknowledged human interference in the climate system needed to stop. The Kyoto Protocol was an amendment to the Convention, which only included the developed nations and went into effect in 2005. The Paris Agreement followed, with 195 countries, including developed and undeveloped nations, signing in 2015. Since January 2021, 190 countries have ratified the agreement. Climate change is global and requires global solutions with multiple scales giving everyone a role to play.

Currently, we are at a warming level of one degree Celsius, noted Dr. Asthana, creating a moderate and high risk in some areas for the environment. A decision to limit emissions to 2 degrees Celsius and keep it below 1.5 degrees Celsius has been made. A Green Climate Fund for developing countries was included to encourage countries to comply.

Dr. Asthana showed how Washington State’s goals mirror those of the Paris Agreement. She identified the need to focus on transportation emissions in the context of the larger world. Her assessment of Washington’s efforts shows how the state is one of those leading the nation in efforts to pass legislation for a clean energy economy. Several specifics were listed in Washington’s achievement of reducing GHG emissions, such as using sustainable aviation fuels and clean buildings.

The Clean Energy Fund in Washington created a mirror to the one in the Paris Accord. It helps provide financial support for solar projects, grid modifications, electrification of transportation, and grants to reduce GHG emissions, and climate change planning.

Washington has cofounded or is a part of several organizations, including; the Climate Group, the Pacific Coast Collaborative, the Climate Alliance, and the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification. It encourages other states and nations to join these organizations. Washington was one of three states in the US to form the Climate Alliance, which has now grown to 24 members, comprising half of the US population and 40% of the nation’s economy. Similarly, the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification has grown from three states to include countries from all over the world.

Dr. Asthana pointed out that unfortunately, Washington State has not met our GHG emission reduction goals for 2020, and we are behind meeting those of 2035. She believes the Climate Commitment Act the state is pushing for shows that we might reach our goals by 2030 by investing in clean transportation, healthy homes, and clean energy. One considerable concern identified by Dr. Asthana is “Washington State has not been able to decouple carbon emissions from economic growth.”

The Assembly wrapped up with a Question and Answer session followed by the “gather around the campfire” exercise and a summary of the evening. Join us for the 7th and last Learning Session, which will bring it all together, this Saturday, February 6th, from 10 am to 1 pm.

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