Acting on climate change buys us insurance

In December Gov. Jay Inslee announced a series of proposals that, if enacted, would make the state of Washington a regional leader in addressing climate change. Since then there have been some predictable partisan responses, including questioning whether climate change is real and, if it exists, whether or not human activities have caused it.

You may feel strongly about this debate – I know I do. But these feelings, in my view, are irrelevant to what policies our state, and our nation, should be pursuing to address climate change and the future of the Earth.

To begin, can we agree that almost all the Earth’s energy comes from the Sun? For eons this energy has been captured by life forms here on Earth, primarily through photosynthesis, and stored chemically in carbon-based molecules. This process, carried out by plants and phytoplankton, supports all life on Earth.

Now, let’s further agree that over the past 250 years we humans have accomplished many amazing things. Using new knowledge about organic chemistry, we learned to mass produce fertilizer, leading directly to more plant growth (captured energy), food, and, ultimately, more people.

We humans also developed many ways to use the fossil remains of ancient plants to meet our modern energy needs. That meant we were no longer limited by what energy plants produce at any one time. Now we were able to tap the store of ancient carbon-based energy.

These and many other human accomplishments have led to our current situation. We number over 7 billion; we have cars (no more walking or horse carts), airplanes (no more wagon trains), and so much more.

Most of these amazing changes result in substantial improvements – we eat better, sleep better, live longer. And, not surprisingly, these rapid changes seem to be rapidly changing the Earth itself. Many point out the changes to the atmosphere (more free carbon) and the oceans (again carbon, plus acidification).

You don’t have to be an expert to see how threatening rapid change to the Earth and its climate might be. With many high risks, we buy insurance to protect against losses. I think that’s what Gov. Inslee’s proposals amount to – ways to recognize and address these threats.

And, you know, we Americans really do have it good. We live in “America the Beautiful”: we have abundant and productive land, great natural resources, access to two oceans, and much more, including wonderful climate. God certainly has shed his grace on this great nation.

Of all the humans in the world, we Americans have the most to lose with climate change, the most at risk. Wouldn’t the conservative approach be to do whatever is necessary to protect what we have – to fight against the risk of climate change?

Unfortunately, there’s a huge problem in the way. You may think that huge obstacle is the fossil fuel industry, but it’s not. The biggest obstacle is our limited perception of time. From our perspective, 100 years is a very long time. Only by looking back can we see changes that were occurring over many lifetimes.

It’s difficult to see major changes as they develop little by little. I suspect that most people have difficulty wrestling with any public policy actions that need to be imposed now, but that only yield benefits incrementally over many years. But we need to.

And here we come back to Gov. Inslee. His climate change and clean energy initiatives take the long view and deserve serious consideration. He is proposing ways to address both the risk of climate change and also to place Washington in the forefront of clean energy.

This should not be a partisan issue. Does anyone, Democrat or Republican, seriously believe that our descendants in 100 years will still be arguing about coal and oil trains? No, I feel certain that there is a clean energy future ahead of us, the only question being the pace of progress (and the role Washington will play in that progress).

Whether one believes that climate change is “real” or not, we all should be able to agree that, if it is, the risk it poses is substantial and that acting sooner would be better than waiting. I believe we should act now! If we set a quick pace, we in essence purchase, at modest costs, insurance policies against the risk of climate change rather than endure great, if not catastrophic, costs later.