For climate activists, a bright spot in a dismal election

Environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest may lead the way.


Thousands gathered in Portland, Oregon, in September as part of the worldwide Global March for Climate Action. Gov. John Kitzhaber was among the speakers.
© John Rudoff 2014

Matt Isenhower was sick of sitting in traffic. As the 34-year-old Navy veteran from Redmond, Washington, van-pooled 80 minutes to and from his job at Amazon in Seattle each day, he had plenty of time to lament the state Senate’s refusal to invest in mass transit. Roughly 58 percent of Washington’s carbon emissions come from the tailpipes of cars, trucks and other vehicles, and the Republican-controlled Senate had also stymied Gov. Jay Inslee’s attempts to forge a bipartisan agreement to limit greenhouse gasses.

Hoping to end the gridlock, Isenhower decided to run for state Senate. With his freshly shaven good looks, military background and Harvard MBA, Democrats thought Isenhower had a good shot at unseating Republican Andy Hill. And in this election year, that was a pretty big deal: If liberals could take just two seats in Washington’s Senate, Inslee — a clean-energy champion and one of America’s greenest governors — would have a pro-environment majority in both chambers. There’s no doubt what he could do with that kind of opportunity: Next year, Inslee hopes to release a sweeping plan that could make Washington the second state in the nation (after California) to slash carbon emissions across the economy by putting a price on them.

With the U.S. Congress growing less and less friendly to climate policy, environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters and NextGen Climate are increasingly looking to progressive states like Washington to lead the way. “The need for taking action on climate is stronger than ever,” says Gregg Small, director of the Olympia-based advocacy group Climate Solutions. “And (the Pacific Northwest) is one of the few places that has the desire to do it.” That’s why environmentalists spent millions of dollars this year trying to secure climate-friendly legislatures for both Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. Isenhower was one of the candidates they bankrolled.

But unprecedented spending by greens didn’t save the U.S. Senate for Democrats, and it didn’t turn Washington’s red Senate blue. Isenhower lost. So did two other Washington Democrats who received outside money.

The results mean that any aggressive carbon-cutting plan put forth by Inslee will undoubtedly face more hurdles. But it doesn’t mean Northwestern states will simply throw in the towel. Kerry McHugh, spokeswoman for the Washington Environmental Council, says Oregon and Washington may still join California in showing the nation that taking meaningful action on climate change need not cause economic ruin. “The West Coast as a whole has been a place where interesting new policies have been incubated in the past,” McHugh says, “and I think that’s going to be the case again.”

One reason for McHugh’s optimism is the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, a non-binding agreement signed last year by Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia. Among other things, the plan requires Washington and Oregon to cut carbon, either through cap-and-trade (as California already does) or by taxing it (British Columbia’s strategy). Inslee’s forthcoming legislation, the details of which are still fuzzy, is Washington’s first step toward upholding its commitment. Oregon may not be far behind.

But with oil-industry supporter Doug Ericksen still heading the Washington Senate Energy Committee, does Inslee’s vision of a carbon market stand a chance? In the last session, Ericksen blocked legislation limiting oil trains, watered down a bill for a carbon emissions study, and hosted a retired professor who told the Senate that “carbon dioxide cannot possibly cause global warming.” Inslee says he’s willing to compromise with Ericksen and other Republicans, but he also has an ace up his sleeve: Earlier this year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state is violating its Constitution by not adequately funding K-through-12 education. Lawmakers need to come up with billions of dollars for education, and the revenue that cap-and-trade or a carbon tax would generate might be an awfully appealing source.

Northwestern University

There are other reasons for hope, too. The day after the election, Inslee reaffirmed his dedication to cutting carbon at an energy conference. He laid out ideas to streamline residential and commercial solar permits, encourage more electric vehicles, and expand the state’s renewable energy program, ideas that Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith says all have a decent chance of passing the GOP Senate. Even more importantly, Inslee has the authority to implement a major clean-fuels standard without introducing new legislation.

There’s also Oregon, a bright spot for climate activists in an otherwise dreary election. Before Nov. 4, Oregon already had a Democratic majority in both chambers, but it wasn’t strong enough to pass Gov. Kitzhaber’s proposal to reduce the carbon intensity of fuels by 10 percent over the next 10 years. Now, Democrats have increased their majority in both chambers of the Oregon Legislature, putting Kitzhaber in an enviable position to pass his clean-fuels bill and other climate legislation. Kitzhaber hasn’t been as outspoken or proactive as Inslee on climate issues, but there have been hints he’s moving toward carbon pricing — and there’s no doubt he sees climate policy as part of his legacy.

National environmental groups like are keeping a close eye on Oregon and plan to keep pressuring both Northwest states to implement aggressive carbon-cutting policies. “With climate deniers in control of Congress, we need to look for progress elsewhere,” says Jamie Henn,’s communications director. “The next five years are critical. There’s no time to twiddle our thumbs.”  

This story was originally titled "Climate catalyst" in the print edition.

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