Moving this post up to feature a 40 minute live segment on KBOO, a community radio station based in Portland, that I did this morning. You can listen to it here. Barbara Bernstein’s show, Locus Focus, is a rare format that actually allows enough time to dig into a subject matter in some depth. So if you want more detail on the state of climate policy than I’ve provided in this post, it’s a good place to start.
I’ve also updated this post to account for late election returns. (It was orginally published on 11/4/10.) Versions of this post were also published at Crosscut and High Country News.
It’s conventional wisdom that the new more heavily GOP configuration in Congress spells bad news for climate policy. There’s some truth in that, but I think there’s a more positive story to tell too. Here’s how I see the events of this week shaping up for Northwest climate policy.
The most significant news by far was from California, where the oil industry-backed Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state’s climate laws, went down in a ball of flames. In fact, Golden State voters were more decisive about rejecting Prop 23 than they were about any of the eight other initiatives on the ballot. Add to that the easy re-election of Senator Boxer, a serious climate champion, and you have excellent news from Cali. Plus, California voters awarded a handy gubernatorial victory to Jerry Brown who has pledged to advance climate policy.
The upshot is that California’s climate laws have now been vetted—and overwhelmingly approved—by the people. That paves the way for reinvigorated state and regional climate programs, including the Western Climate Initiative. So it’s no surprise that exactly one day after the election, New Mexico leaders announced that they would move forward with comprehensive policy, including a cap-and-trade program. All of which means that New Mexico, a major energy-producing state, and California are both poised to join at least the Canadian provinces of the WCI (BC, Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario) in meaningful regional climate action. We’ll see whether WCI members Oregon and Washington can pick up the gauntlet.
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Speaking of BC, however, there’s a new question mark north of the border. Yesterday, Premier Gordon Campbell announced he would step down. That’s somewhat worrisome news because Campbell has been a staunch supporter of participation in the Western Climate Initiative, and he implemented the province’s best-in-the-world carbon tax. (It’s fair to say, however, Campbell’s other environmental policies have been more checkered.) It’s unclear who will replace Campbell as premier and head of the right-of-center Liberal party (yes, you read that correctly). But since Campbell was a bit more climate friendly than the province’s Liberal party as a whole, there’s some reason for concern.
There are also changes that will bear on Oregon and Washington’s participation in regional climate policy. In the good news column, Oregon voters elected (or re-elected in some sense) John Kitzhaber as governor. Kitzhaber is expected to maintain Oregon’s leadership position on clean energy and climate. Oregon’s house of representatives will be evenly spilt between the parties, while democrats will maintain a tiny margin in the state senate. It’s unclear what the new balance of power will mean for climate policy, though it’s worth noting that the democratic majorities of the last few years did not come close to authorizing Oregon’s participation in a serious carbon reduction program.
It’s much the same story in Washington, where Republicans put dents into the huge margins that Democrats formerly held in both houses of the legislature. As in Oregon, Washington’s Democrat-dominated legislature had not been favorably inclined to full participation in WCI, so it’s not clear if the more even distribution of power will make any difference. One race to watch, however, is Snohomish County’s 44th district where Representative Hans Dunshee currently maintains a razor-thin lead over his opponent. Dunshee is arguably the single most effective climate champion in the Washington legislature. [Update: Late returns buoyed Dunshee, and he won a solid re-election victory.]
Speaking of Dunshee, let’s talk about Referendum 52, a measure that he stumped for and Sightline supported. Voters said no to R-52. Some are calling the voter rejection a setback for climate policy (since the bill would have helped reduce energy use and carbon emissions), but I think that’s the wrong analysis. The R-52 campaign scarcely mentioned energy or climate, as these were said to poll poorly, but focused almost entirely on school buildings, children’s health, and construction jobs. Additionally, the measure struggled against opposition on the grounds that it would have also exceeded the state’s debt limit and also extended a tax on bottled water, both tough sells in a strongly anti-tax year. In the end, I’d argue that R-52 stumbled because it was simply too opaque.
At the federal level, where most of the punditry has been concentrated, the Northwest’s climate politics are likely to remain static. Idaho Democrat Walt Minnick, an opponent of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, was defeated soundly by a Republican opponent who is also not likely to champion carbon-reducing legislation. The Northwest’s only other Democratic congressman to oppose the bill, Oregon’s Peter DeFazio, was re-elected easily. By contrast, Washington’s Dave Reichert, one of only eight Republicans nationally to cross the aisle to support Waxman-Markey, cruised to re-election partly on the strength of the env
dorsements he earned for his climate leadership.
So far, the only apparent loss for Northwest climate leadership is in Washington’s 3rd congressional district, where retiring Democrat Brian Baird will be replaced by Republican Jaime Herrera. Herrera cannot be expected to be as supportive of climate policy as Baird. Another potential loss was also in Washington, where 2nd district Democrat Rick Larsen is eked out a narrow win over his opponent, John Koster. In brighter news, Washington’s Jay Inslee—one of the nation’s leading lights on climate policy—romped to re-election.
The Northwest’s senate delegation will remain even more static with every incumbent returned to office. Idaho Republican Mike Crapo crushed his opponent. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden sailed to victory. And Washington Democrat Patty Murray looks likely to eke out a win. On climate policy, Crapo, Wyden, and Murray all fall out along party lines. Even in Alaska, Republican Lisa Murkowski, a bitter opponent of carbon regulation, won a suprising upset victory as a write-in candidate.
So what’s the final score? I know I’m bucking the received view here, but for Northwest climate policy I’d say that on balance things look much like they did before the election. The prospects for strong federal action are diminished (though they were already dim), but on the heels of Prop 23’s defeat in California the prospects for the Western Climate Initiative look brighter than ever. As before, full participation by Oregon and Washington will hinge on making the case to the state’s more conservative legislators. And BC’s leadership remains obscured for the moment.
All that said, there’s an elephant in the room that I’ve been trying hard to ignore in this analysis: minority rule. California, Oregon, and Washington all now have various versions of an undemocratic “supermajority” requirement that is the darling of the worst polluters. It’s a complicated subject—and one I’m prone to ranting about—so I’m going to take it up in a subsequent post.