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Sue Lani Madsen: Inslee should be more open about using pandemic to meet his climate change goals

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Gov. Jay Inslee, the presidential candidate, talked of nothing but climate change. Inslee, the candidate for a third term as Washington’s governor, has of necessity been talking nothing but COVID-19 for the past two months.

He tied the two together while a panelist at a virtual town hall live-streamed at berniesanders.com on May 13. The event was titled “Saving Our Planet from the Existential Threat of Climate Change,” and fellow panelist Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, had just discussed the Green New Deal. Inslee was up next.

In his own words: “It is such a no-brainer at this moment with the COVID crisis that has precipitated this enormous economic challenge. We should not miss an opportunity to drive home what Varshini was talking about, that this has enormous backing in our constituents to understand the economic necessity of this. And we should not be intimidated when people say, ‘Oh, you can’t use this COVID crisis, you know, to peddle a solution to climate change.’ ”

Or as Rahm Emmanuel once said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

But that’s not how Mike Faulk, the governor’s deputy communications director, viewed Inslee’s comments.

“It was in the context of looking forward years from now – as good leaders do – that the governor made those comments,” Faulk said in a statement. “As with investments in infrastructure in different industries helped lift America out of the Great Depression, the governor recognizes the economic stimulus potential in making an investment in sustainable energy infrastructure. Now more than ever we should be looking at innovative ways to keep our way of life sustainable.”

The Sunrise Movement describes the Green New Deal as “a 10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030.”

During the town hall with Inslee, Prakash talked about history repeating itself. And she’d be right. Ten-year plans are a dime a decade.

Plans like Restore Washington, Gov. Inslee’s data-driven push to move Washington to a sustainable future. It was launched during Inslee’s first term in 2013 and included seven specific, measurable targets for building a clean energy economy by 2020. Data was updated on the Restore Washington website until the end of 2018, when new data stopped.

“Clean energy economy” was removed from the list of goals on the website in February 2019, according to Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.

Inslee announced his climate change-fueled run for the presidency the next month. Perhaps the data might have inconveniently highlighted goals not met.

Inslee’s remarks at the Bernie Sanders town hall focused on a goal “to recognize the necessity of this moment that this will allow us to rebuild our economy and jump-start it. It was a necessity before the COVID crisis. It is an absolute requirement now to rebuild our economy. And we shouldn’t be intimidated by Republicans about this at all.”

When asked at this Monday’s press briefing to clarify his comments to Sanders on the COVID crisis as opportunity, Inslee talked about the Great Depression, World War II, transportation infrastructure, water, sewer, replacing failing highway bridges and more federal money.

He managed to avoid using the words climate change until finally saying COVID-19 should not be used “as an excuse not to deal with climate change. That was my point and the point is that this is going to help rebuild our economy and I really fundamentally believe that.”

The last things people say when answering a question are often the closest to the heart. No one would be surprised if Inslee discussed climate change. At a time when squashing conspiracy theories is essential to public trust and public health, avoiding his favorite topic invites speculation. It’s also an unsustainable communication strategy when every meeting, every briefing, every town hall is accessible in virtual reality. Video clips from the Sanders event were circulating in less than a week.

Whether or when a second wave of COVID-19 or another novel virus erupts, we need to be ready to provide care. What started as an effort to protect our hospitals by spreading the same number of infections over a longer period of time has thrown the entire healthcare system into its own existential crisis.

Shutting down the economy is not a sustainable strategy. No economic activity, no taxes in the treasury and a ballooning burden of federal debt. For college students struggling to pay off student loans, wait until they get the bill for more federal stimulus to meet the needs of this generation. Now that’s an existential threat to future generations and their ability to meet their own needs.

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