Climate Disruption in the Legislature: Starting the Climate Countdown

State Capitol — Olympia, Washington (Photo from 350 Seattle)

On Monday, 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 and indigenous 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 matters to order. The disruptors were promptly kicked out of the Capitol building, but their message was heard, and they will be back.

350 Seattle launched the 60-Day Climate Countdown Campaign

The interruption was just Day 1 of a 60-day Climate Countdown 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 so-called 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 Furthermore, the State’s own environmental agency has concluded those targets are outdated, and young people are suing the state because of how inadequate they are. Yet Washington is not even hitting those outdated targets, and lacks any meaningful plan to do so, especially now that the governor’s plan to cap pollution has been struck down in court.

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.

Illustrating the intersection between indigenous rights and climate justice, the same day the capitol was being stormed by climate justice activists, an indigenous-led encampment occupied the lawn in front of the Capitol. Along with objecting to net pen fish farms, their occupation was driven by resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure which threatens native sovereignty, and threatens to pollute water, and put human well-being and wildlife at risk.

Two fossil fuel projects in particular drew the ire of indigenous activists. The first is a controversial liquified fracked/’natural’ gas plant being proposed in Tacoma on the land of the Puyallup Nation, despite not having proper permitting or consent. The other project being opposed is the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries tar sands oil from Alberta.

Meme courtesy of Valeria Costa (350 Seattle)

The indigenous-led encampment continued, with 7 indigenous women occupying the capitol lawns in an indigenous tarpee (a tarp-covered teepee). They committed to staying their until arrested or politicians take action on climate change and native treaty rights. In response, on Thursday morning, the police arrested one of the occupiers, and charged them with criminal trespass for not having a permit. Activists were quick to point out the hypocrisy of the government arresting a protestor for protesting without the right permit, while allowing a major fossil fuel project to proceed with construction without the necessary permits.

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 fuelled 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 could consider introducing a 100% renewable energy bill, following the lead of states like Hawaii and forty-seven of the world’s least developed countries have all committed to reach 100 percent clean energy between 2030 and 2050. Additionally, legislators have already introduced a bill to pass a low carbon fuels standard, which would address transportation emissions. Finally, on Tuesday, Washington’s Governor Inslee proposed a really 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 and the low carbon fuels standard 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 and reinvest 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 and then drastically reduce emissions if we are to stand a reasonable chance of averting catastrophic climate change, so we cannot afford to wait one more day 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 legislator was a start, but we’re going to have to do a lot more if we are to disrupt the vested interests, corrupted legislators, and powerful industries that are holding back progress on a just transition to a clean energy future.

The best time for climate action was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now, and if we delay much further we’ll simply be out of time.

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 founding 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.

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