Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and her three West Coast colleagues reflected during a conference this week on how they are coping with the reality of climate change and what they are doing to reduce the greenhouse gas pollutants that are intensifying heat waves, rain and ice storms, wildfires and floods.
Oregon, Washington, California and the Canadian province of British Columbia share similar goals of reducing those emissions to net zero by 2050.
“Climate change is something we no longer are trying to avert. It is actually here,” Brown said during a closing discussion Tuesday at the Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference in Blaine, Washington. “Our strategies are going to have to evolve into adaptation and mitigation.”
Conference attendees heard about specific ways those strategies are being carried out.
Brown was joined by John Horgan, the premier of British Columbia — both are leaving office soon — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governors are Democrats. Horgan leads the province’s New Democratic Party, and all have backed measures to deal with climate change.
The session was virtual. Inslee spoke from Finland; the others from their home states or province.
Though Canada’s national climate change policies are ahead of the United States — there is still no federal standard for renewable sources of energy — all three governors praised recent congressional passage of legislation that provides billions in incentives over a decade for carbon-free energy and other climate-change measures.
“Getting the federal government to come up with $360 billion to help us, finally, is an incredible achievement given where we were,” Inslee said. “We’re always going to be ahead of Washington, D.C., and that’s a good thing. But now we’re going to have some capital to help our states accelerate our efforts.”
Brown said one constant in all her efforts during eight years as governor has been “environmental justice,” to make sure that the burdens do not fall disproportionately on people of color, low-income households or rural residents. While former Gov. Barbara Roberts set up the first such state advisory panel 30 years ago, Brown got the Legislature to create a permanent Environmental Justice Council this year.
“It is so essential that we center these voices … so that this work can continue after my term ends,” Brown said.
Oregon also provides for a $5,000 rebate for low- and moderate-income households, on top of the $2,500 rebate available for all buyers, for new or used electric vehicles.
Brown also spoke about the short- and long-term measures recommended by the Governor’s Wildfire Council in 2019 — and finally passed by the Legislature in 2021 — to mitigate the risk of wildfires, such as the 2020 Labor Day blazes that burned 1 million acres, destroyed 4,000 homes and resulted in nine deaths.
“We’ve already seen how we can pre-position assets and make sure our communities are better prepared,” she said, by updating firefighting techniques, providing for clean-air shelters and making sure there is defensible space around homes and other buildings.
“I hope we have laid the foundation for healthier landscapes” through forest thinning and prescribed burning to reduce potential fuel buildups in forests, Brown said.
Brown’s staff also mediated an accord between the timber industry and environmental advocates, signed in 2021 and written into law this year, that resolves a four-decade-old dispute over Oregon’s 10 million acres of privately owned forestlands. The law sets up a process for a new habitat conservation plan.
Though Brown did not mention them, an executive order she issued in March 2020 — after Republican walkouts in 2019 and 2020 thwarted legislative action on climate change — led to a state plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 90% from 2017-19 levels by 2050. She also signed 2021 legislation that requires Oregon’s two largest private utilities to generate 100% carbon-free power by 2040.
California and Washington
Oregon also is considering following Washington, California and British Columbia in barring sales of new gasoline-powered cars after 2035.
California has led the way toward lower-emission vehicles since 1967, when it created a state Air Resources Board and a federal law allowed it to set stricter pollution standards than for the rest of the nation. Oregon and 15 other states also follow those standards, which President Donald Trump tried to abandon, but the current Environmental Protection Agency chose to continue late last year.
“There is nothing more profound or significant than what California is doing,” said Newsom, who fought Trump’s repeal efforts.
Transportation is still the largest sector generating greenhouse gases, especially in California. Newsom said that accounts for his push for electric cars.
“If we are going to get serious about reducing greenhouse gases, we have to get serious about decarbonizing the transportation sector,” he said. “We can dominate the next big global industry. This is not about electric power. It’s about economic power.”
California is not usually considered part of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, a Pacific Northwest public-private effort to better integrate economies, transportation and communities from British Columbia to Oregon. But its output of goods and services makes it the world’s fifth largest economy, and its 39 million people — combined with the 17 million in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia — gives the mega-region the potential to become the first self-sustaining of its kind.
Newsom and Premier Horgan said opposing political parties have given their support to such efforts — a Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, signed the state air pollution law in 1967 — and Horgan said climate change is less contentious in British Columbia than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
“The public and the planet will not thank us for trying to score political points. They will thank us for leadership,” Horgan said.
Inslee said Washington has made progress on climate change largely without Republican support.
“We need two parties, but we don’t have that right now,” he said. “We need two parties pulling this wagon, not one.”
Inslee, who has been governor 10 years, said what could change that view is the sheer number of jobs being created in clean energy. A presenter at an earlier session of the conference said the United States now has 3.2 million related jobs — 505,000 in California, 77,000 in Washington and 54,000 in Oregon — and the total grew by 5% in 2021.
“The No. 1 economies today are on the West Coast of the United States and in British Columbia,” Inslee said. “One of the reasons is that we are growing jobs like crazy in the clean-energy, high-tech innovative economy. We have shown this is not hypothetical. People want jobs, and we are delivering jobs.”