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Vital conversation on climate evolves

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I am amazed how vital conversations evolve. Maybe conditions get bad enough or the grown-ups take over, but the context and urgency of the discourse move in a pragmatic direction. The realignment on climate change and renewable energy finally struck me.

For all the theatrics and hysteria of last summer's tantrums on health-care reform, the national discussion turned serious, and Congress made genuine progress.


I am amazed how vital conversations evolve.


Maybe conditions get bad enough or the grown-ups take over, but the context and urgency of the discourse move in a pragmatic direction. The realignment on climate change and renewable energy finally struck me.


Credit the epiphany to two elected state officials I would not have looked to first: Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and Treasurer James McIntire.


Their remarks to a Seattle forum on federal climate policy made it clear that thinking about and anticipating the business and financial consequences of global warming were already part of their jobs.


As the rest of us process images of sweaty polar bears in tank tops and head bands, Kreidler is worried about insurance industry risk-management strategies for climate change — in particular in the reinsurance market, the coverage insurers buy to spread their losses in a disaster. Think droughts, fires and hurricanes, the byproducts of climate change.


Still a skeptic? Check out Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch's reportorial terroir about Puget Sound getting warm enough to ripen wine grapes.


McIntire, who helps oversee state investment of $62 billion, bluntly states, "the financial risks of climate change are huge." The former University of Washington economics professor looks at investment opportunities for public dollars with a 30-year perspective.


Likewise, institutional investors in the private sector have to factor global warming into risks and rewards.


The same questions that give McIntire pause — about rising sea levels and volatility of global food prices and their impact on real estate and business activities — hang over the whole economy.


As automakers and car buyers embrace hybrids and think about electric alternatives to gas guzzlers or even gas sippers, McIntire is contemplating the effect on infrastructure now financed by gas taxes. Washington's treasurer said he could not see any major transportation project around the country built without tolling.


The erosion of general obligation bond capacity and declining gas taxes make tolling the go-to revenue source. Tolling, McIntire notes, changes the discussion about need and capacity. Maybe tolls and better transit options mean a project can be scaled back.


The treasurer is particularly intent on capturing energy savings in public projects to finance the public investment. Take the money saved on operating expenses and pay off the bonds to build or retrofit a school, library or office building. Creative thinking applied to a real problem.


Meanwhile, the deniers stumble along. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce suffered very public defections for its lazy, robotic opposition to climate legislation. This week, a Freedom of Information lawsuit yielded a report written by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. The document, suppressed by the Bush White House, details global-warming risks to the nation.


Still, earnest efforts make the system work. Washington Democrat Rep. Jay Inslee co-authored the Inslee-Doyle amendment with a Pittsburgh lawmaker to craft strategic dispensations for Rust Belt industries in the climate bill approved by the House.


The next step is in the Senate. I expect the concerns of Kreidler, McIntire and Inslee will help inform the debate.

Published in the Seattle Times - 10/16/09


Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.


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