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The Climate Plan That Time Forgot

NASA/Public Domain

Last week, the leaders of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia gathered in San Francisco. 

They pledged to take bold, coordinated action to combat climate change. But as Jefferson Public Radio’s Liam Moriarty explains , the unveiling of the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy has an undercurrent of déjà vu.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber called the agreement “historic.” He declared climate and energy to be the most profound challenges facing the region, and the world.

John Kitzhaber: “So the central question is whether we are going to shape our climate and energy future, through intentional development and intentional actions and policies, or whether that future is going to shape us.”

The governors of the three states and the premier of the Canadian province set out an ambitious agenda of carbon reduction, renewable energy and green infrastructure. They vowed the West Coast would set an example of a model clean economy.

The ringing tone of the announcement was strikingly similar to another gathering of western governors not very long ago.

In February, 2007, the governors of these same three states, along with those of Arizona and New Mexico, announced they had formed the Western Climate Initiative. The goal? To fight climate change by reducing carbon emissions and boosting clean energy.

So, whatever happened to that?

Mary Wood: “It really went nowhere.”

Mary Wood is a professor of environmental and natural resources law at the University of Oregon.

Mary Wood: “There was a lot of energy, intellectual energy, and money invested in developing it, a lot of diplomatic energy, and it resulted in just a fizzle out.”  

What ultimately doomed the Western Climate Initiative was that, while California approved a cap and trade system to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the legislatures in Oregon, Washington and other states balked. With its centerpiece caught in a political deadlock, the Initiative faded into irrelevance.

Now, with new governors in all three states, the dream of a united west coast leading the way into a clean, green future has re-emerged. But is there any reason to think the Pacific Coast Action Plan will succeed where the Western Climate Initiative failed?

Andrea Durbin: “That’s a good question.”

Andrea Durbin heads the Oregon Environmental Council.  To Durbin, the difference this time is a more flexible approach to reducing carbon emissions.

Andrea Durbin: “You can adopt cap and trade, you can price carbon, you can adopt a more regulatory approach. What’s most important is that these states are saying we’re going to step up, we’re going to act, we’re going to lead, and we recognize that inaction is costly.”

Dan Jacobson, with Environment California, notes that the Western Climate Initiative was begun under previous administrations in all three. He says having the new leaders personally commit to climate action will re-energize regional efforts.

Dan Jacobson: “We like the fact that Governor Brown, and the governors of Oregon and Washington and British Columbia  are saying that this is what we are going to do to fight climate change.”

Kitzhaber energy advisor Margi Hoffmann says her boss and his counterparts are raring to go.

Margi Hoffmann: “The four jurisdictional leaders want to work together, they’re fired up, they’re ready to move forward.”

Whether that enthusiasm will produce more results than previous efforts is far from certain. British Columbia passed a carbon tax in 2008. Two years later, California voters fended off an oil industry-funded  ballot measure that would have suspended the state’s cap and trade system.

But lawmakers in Oregon and Washington refused, saying anything that would raise energy costs was a no-go.

Now, Washington’s new governor Jay Inslee is gearing up to take another run at cap and trade in the next legislative session. But in Oregon, Margi Hoffmann doesn’t see the governor following suit. She says there are other ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions, including rules that ­reduce the carbon in gasoline and other fuels.

But University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood says officials should focus less on politics and look at the consequences of increasing atmospheric carbon.

Mary Wood: “And if we don’t meet the requirements that are inherent in the biophysical characteristics of the atmosphere, it doesn’t matter how hard we tried. Nature will come forth with its own consequences.”

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.