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Adapt or mitigate? Washington Republicans roll out climate proposal

A new proposal from Washington State Republicans highlights the conversation around how to both reduce and mitigate emissions while adapting to a warming world, and may provide a blueprint for what conservative climate policies could entail in the future. 

Yesterday, Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy) introduced a package of environmental proposals called the Outdoor Recreation and Climate Adaptation plan, ORCA for short. It outlines  Republican preferences for how to spend Climate Commitment Act dollars — specifically investing it into forest health, eliminating the $30 Discover Pass needed to access state parks, upgrading wastewater treatment plants, and addressing drought and flooding. 

For Dye, the proposal provides immediate benefits for the state. 

“Washingtonians deserve to have more practical environmentalism so that they get tangible benefits,” Dye said. “We’ve had a lot of environmental problems that have been languishing because there hasn’t been political will or financial commitment to it.” 

The plan highlights a divide in addressing climate change and a question that will continue to drive policy conversations: Should states prioritize cutting emissions first, or planning for infrastructure needed to adapt to a warming world? And where is the balancing point between them?

Climate Commitment Act

During the 2021 session, Washington’s legislature passed the Climate Commitment Act. A keystone of this legislation was a cap-and-invest program, whereby large polluters — beginning in 2023 — will be charged for generating emissions above a prescribed limit. The program could generate $4 billion over the following 10 years, with more than 70% of revenue in most years being directed to the Carbon Emissions Reduction Account, according to an analysis in Dye’s proposal. 

According to the most recent greenhouse gas emissions inventory report, released last January and including years up to 2018, Washington’s emissions have increased steadily since 2012 as the state recovered from the Recession. Emissions rose 1.3% from 2017 to 2018, reaching a total of 99.6 million metric tons, the highest seen since 2007. 

Of this, transportation was the largest category of emissions, accounting for 44.9%. Building heating came in second, accounting for 23.8%, followed by electrical generation, producing 16.3%. 

To meet Washington’s climate goals, the state needs to cut emissions by half, or eliminate roughly 50 million metric tons of emissions by 2030. The following graphic, provided at a recent Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee meeting, breaks down how different policies are expected to impact that work. 

Greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change, as concentrations of carbon dioxide and other gasses like methane trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Globally, fossil fuels used for electricity and heat, agriculture, industry and transportation make up the majority of emissions.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) said emission reductions are a crucial part of decarbonizing the state, along with other strategies. 

“That’s sustainable aviation fuel, other biofuels, renewable hydrogen, it’s electrification of transportation, it is modernizing our grid and energy storage, issues that aren’t exclusive to transportation or non-transportation,” Carlyle said. “… The number one goal, upside down and backwards, is to reach science-based 2050 targets. That’s our goal, and I’m all ears in terms of recommendations, ideas, suggestions for how to get there.” 

The Climate Commitment Act is also designed to align with the Healthy Environment for All Act, which also passed last session, and emphasizes environmental justice and protecting vulnerable communities.

It requires the Washington Environmental Justice Council to make recommendations to the legislature on which projects to fund, expands air quality monitoring in impacted communities. The Department of Ecology must set air quality targets to improve quality and eliminate disparities for overburdened communities and adopt new standards to meet those targets. Taken together, it lays the groundwork for both addressing local air pollution and global emissions, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

It carves out money for projects undertaken by Tribes and for overburdened communities. In total, at least 35% of funding must go to provide direct benefits to communities that are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms, and 10% will go to Tribes.

However, the lion’s share of funding is focused on reducing emissions, including by building out electric vehicle infrastructure, and for reducing emissions in freight transportation and in ports. It’s mitigation work that provides a global, and local, benefit in the long-term.

Rulemaking for cap-and-invest is ongoing, and should be adopted by next fall, but no specific projects are identified in the legislation. Dye said her proposal would clearly identify where money raised from the program will go, and what projects will be impacted. She views Washington’s current emissions reduction programs as sufficient, namely the reducing amount that polluters will be able to emit over time.

“It’s just buckets that have been identified as named funding pools,” Dye said of the current funding structure. “But they don’t have actual people that have submitted projects or identified that they really need that money, or that amount of money, or how it’s appropriated.” 

Taken from the ORCA plan.

What’s in the ORCA plan

Whereas the current Climate Commitment Act is focused on reducing emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change, the ORCA Plan focuses its attention to adapting to those impacts. The proposal directs the $4 billion in revenue to outdoor recreation and climate adaptation. 

The plan states that Washington parks have $424 million in deferred maintenance, and while the state’s population has grown by 2.7 million since 1990, only 28 camping sites have been added during that time. The top 10 parks in the state are full, and must be booked a year in advance. Camping reservation costs have also increased. 

On outdoor recreation, it proposes eliminating the $30 annual Discover Pass which is needed to access state parks, pays for maintenance and upgrades at those parks, and increases capacity at parks. 

The plan also addresses adapting to climate change impacts. With a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the limit which the Paris Agreement strived to keep warming below and which is becoming an increasingly unachievable goal, Washington will have 67% more days where temperatures soar above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. 

It will also see a 38% reduction in snowpack, a 16% increase in winter streamflow leading to flooding, and a 23% lower summer streamflow causing drought and problems for salmon and agriculture. On a global scale, this will contribute to more frequent and intense natural disasters and storms, species extinctions, and human death and displacement.

To address this through adaptation, Dye’s plan proposes fully funding efforts to restore 2.7 million acres of diseased and dying forests in Washington. The legislature authorized $125 million in each biennial budget for this work, but has yet to set up a long-term funding source. The ORCA plan would use Climate Commitment Act money to fully fund this. 

On drought, the plan would direct funds to an existing drought preparation and response account, which also has no dedicated funding source. Funding could be used to match federal money for large water storage and irrigation projects. 

It further addresses flooding by setting aside revenue to reduce flood damage and improve fish habitat in basins at risk of flooding. In the flood-prone Chehalis basin alone, inaction on flood projects is expected to cost more than $3.5 billion. In addition, the plan sets aside money to pay for upgrades to Puget Sound wastewater treatment plants to reduce pollution which can lead to ‘dead zones.’ 

“Those are the things that I want to see us use the dollars for, instead of spending it on emissions reduction when it’s not gonna show a global benefit long-term, and we still will not have the infrastructure we need to adapt to the real and tangible impacts that we’re having today,” Dye said. 

The politics of climate policy

Already, the plan has attracted support from House Republican Leader Rep. JT Wilcox (R-Yelm), who previewed the legislation in a recent interview. Dye said there has also been support among Senate Republicans for the ORCA plan. 

“We can make a huge impact on carbon by fully and permanently funding the forest practices that are necessary for healthy forests, which sequester carbon at the fastest possible rate,” Wilcox said in previous coverage. 

Across the aisle, Carlyle also showed interest in the plan, calling it a serious piece of work. As the rulemaking process progresses, Carlyle said it’s constructive to have ideas on how to spend Climate Commitment Act money. 

“The money is not in the door yet, and the initial allocation between transportation and non-transportation topics, the broad categories of investment areas, all of those issues are legitimate and are on the table,” he said. “They should be rigorously studied and debated and examined from every angle, so I have no problem whatsoever with considering various ideas and proposals.” 

For Aseem Prakash, founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics, the proposed plan and support among Republican lawmakers in Washington could serve as a blueprint for GOP politicians nationwide. 

While former President Donald Trump cast doubt on whether climate change was happening, Republican Congressmembers have launched the Conservative Climate Caucus which has more than 70 members, including Washington’s Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Cathay McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse. 

“I think Washington Republicans can become a role model for national Republicans,” Prakash said. “Climate denial is over.” 

For Prakash, it’s a smart political move to focus on adaptation. It provides tangible public goods in the short term, like more parks and improved water districts. 

“These are local benefits, so when the benefits are local and tangible, people are willing to pay taxes,” he said. 

It also highlights the urban-rural divide in Washington, he said, where for many people, climate impacts like sweeping wildfires east of the Cascades are annoyances instead of disasters. Other ideas like eliminating the Discover Pass could prove popular too. 

“I think there is a populist appeal here, and a very good one, it’s not reckless,” Prakash said. “… These people really have done their homework well, and what they’re saying should appeal more to the public than even electrification of EVs.” 

In climate politics, Prakash said there has been until recently a concern that discussing adaptation could diffuse mitigation efforts, both of which are generally agreed upon as being necessary to address climate change. 

“Until recently, and by recently I mean 2019, the climate movement did not want to talk about adaptation, because the fear was the moment you talk about adaptation where the benefits are local… people won’t want to talk about mitigation,” he said. 

The Climate Reality Project wrote that the IPCC states both mitigation and adaptation are needed to address climate change. However, while adaptation provides immediate benefits, mitigation often provides global, far-away benefits. These defused benefits could lead residents of wealthier countries, that could bear the cost of reducing emissions, to choose only to adapt “while leaving everyone else behind.” 

It’s a problem Prakash is thinking about too, but pointed to a 2018 study on mitigation and adaptation support. The study was a web-based survey of 2,000 U.S. respondents. It asked participants whether they would support a proposed gasoline tax for both mitigation and adaptation costs. 

It found that providing information about adaption costs leads to a small increase in respondents’ willingness to support mitigation efforts. In short, Prakash said it supports the idea that touting both immediate adaptation benefits along with long-term emissions mitigation can lead to higher support for both. 

How that debate on the right mixture of mitigation and adaptation policy will play out in Washington State, and across the U.S., has yet to be seen. 

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