Climate Disruption in the Legislature: Starting the Climate Countdown

State Capitol — Olympia, Washington (Photo Courtesy of 350 Seattle)

On Monday the 8th of January, the Washington State Legislature opened their legislative session for the year. Their usual, mundane, and somewhat self-congratulatory proceedings were met with disruptions and occupations as climate justice activists stormed the capitol. Over 200 concerned Washingtonians from across the state converged on the capitol, and filed into the legislature’s open proceedings.

A few minutes into the proceedings a rumble began to stir. Then, from one side of the room, a crowd of citizens in red shirts shouted: “We have a climate crisis”. Across the hall came the reply: “You need to act now”. Four times over the call-and-repeat went, drowning out the sound of a gavel making a futile attempt to bring the session to order. The disruptors were swiftly escorted out of the building, but they will be back, as the interruption was just Day 1 of a 60-day Climate Countdown Campaign — a campaign calling on the legislature to respond to the urgency of the climate crisis by banning all new fossil fuel projects and committing to a rapid transition 100% clean energy.

Washington State has branded itself as a climate leader. It is home to the purported greenest governor in the country, who helped launch the We Are Still In Coalition in response to Donald Trump’s immoral attempts to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. However, behind the glossy language, and flashy commitments lies a troubling reality. Washington State is not even on track to meet its own targets of cutting carbon pollution back to 1990 levels by 2020. Furthermore, the State’s own environmental agency has concluded those targets are outdated, young people are suing the state because of how inadequate they are, and legislation is being considered to update those targets. Yet Washington is not even hitting its outdated targets, and lacks any meaningful plan to do so, especially now that the governor’s plan to cap pollution has been struck down in court.

350 Seattle launched the 60-Day Climate Countdown Campaign

If Washington really wanted to act consistent with the Paris Climate Agreements, then it would do well to heed the demands of the Climate Countdown Campaign. Studies have shown that we already have more fossil fuel infrastructure than we need to push us passed the Paris Agreements target of keeping global warming well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C. As such, we need to be retiring fossil fuel infrastructure, not building new infrastructure.

In addition to saying no to new fossil fuel infrastructure, action in line with Paris Agreement requires building a new clean energy economy, and building it fast. Recent studies show that a 100% clean energy future is not only possible, but also more profitable and prosperous than a fossil-fueled future. Researchers at Stanford have even devised a plan for Washington State to reach 100% clean energy using existing technologies, so we have no reason not to act.

In terms of mechanisms to help build the clean energy economy, the legislature has introduced a 100% renewable energy by 2045 bill, which would follow the lead of 50 cities, 5 counties and 1 state in the U.S., who (along with 48 of the world’s least developed countries! ) have already committed to reach 100 percent clean energy between 2030 and 2050. Additionally, legislators introduced a bill to pass a low carbon fuels standard, which would reduce transportation emissions. Finally, Washington’s Governor Inslee has proposed an important policy to put a price on carbon pollution, which would use revenue gained from a $20/ton and rising carbon tax to invest in clean energy, carbon reductions, natural resources, and workers and low-income people.

A 100% clean energy standard, Inslee’s carbon tax, the low carbon fuels standard, and updating the State’s outdated emissions targets, are vital policies which deserve support. However, if our elected leaders fail to act, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a broad alliance of labor, faith, social justice and environmental leaders, aims to takes the issue directly to Washingtonians through the ballot initiative process. They are proposing a green new deal for Washington State — putting a price on carbon pollution to fund a just transition away from fossil fuels which protects workers, vulnerable communities, and low-income people, and reinvests into communities, the environment and a clean energy future.

An Urgent Time for Action

Last year brought home the urgency of acting on climate, with 2017 being the costliest U.S. disaster year on record. Meanwhile the canary in the coal mine for climate change is starting to perish, with 94 percent of coral reef systems across the globe facing a severe bleaching event since the 1980s, according to a recent study. In my life time, as a 30-year-old, business-as-usual, continuing as we are, puts us on track to a world which scientists have described as ranging from “catastrophic” to “unknown, implying beyond catastrophic, including existential threats”. Beyond my lifetime, I shudder to think what world our children might face. In the face of this reality, our elected leaders should not be sleeping at night. They should be haunted by their failure to respond to the gravest crisis that humanity has ever faced. We shouldn’t be sleeping soundly either, if we aren’t holding them accountable and pushing for broad action.

Studies show that the world has less than two years left to peak & then drastically reduce global emissions if we are to stand a reasonable chance of averting catastrophic climate change, so we cannot afford to wait any longer to get going. While legislators might complain about having their session disrupted, that disruption pales in comparison to the climate disruption we are set to face if we do not act. Indeed, if we do not act rapidly, we may well disrupt the climactic conditions needed for human civilization as we know it.

The Climate Countdown has begun, and the climate clock keeps ticking, unwaveringly, unwilling to slow down for political inertia. The existential question we face now is whether we can beat the clock, and what we are willing to put on the line to ensure that we do. Disrupting the legislature was a start, but we’re going to have to do a lot more if we are to disrupt the vested interests holding back progress on a just transition to a clean energy future. To adapt a Chinese proverb, the best time for climate action was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now, and if we delay much further well we might simply be out of time to avert potentially catastrophic climate change.
It’s long past time to act.

About the author: Alex Lenferna is a Fulbright Scholar researching climate justice at the University of Washington. He is an organizer with 350 Seattle, which helped organize the Climate Countdown Campaign. He is also a member of the UAW 4121 Climate Justice Caucus. UAW 4121 serves on the Steering Committee of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. Views expressed are his own.

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition & campaigner with 350Africa.org. He has a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington.