The devastation from Washington’s wildfires this summer showed that the consequences of climate damage are getting worse. Wildfires have multiple causes, whether human negligence, poor forest management, or freak natural accidents. Nevertheless, the warmer and drier summers in the Pacific Northwest has meant that the fire season has gotten longer and potentially more volatile.
So far, the destruction of Washington’s latest wildfires has been relatively contained. The deaths of two people and the destruction of over three hundred and fifty homes is tragic, but in terms of acreage, the wildfires this season have been relatively small. However, within the context of the last few decades, massive wildfires have become more common in Washington.
Prior to the twenty-first century, the largest wildfire in Washington’s history was the Yacolt Burn in 1902 that scorched nearly 240,000 acres. In 2014, that record was broken when the Carlton Complex Fire burned approximately 256,000 acres.
Then, in 2015, the Okanogan Complex Fire eclipsed that destruction with wildfires that burned nearly 305,000 acres. Five years later, that record was smashed again when the Washington Labor Day Fires burned more than 330,000 acres.
Unless Washingtonians want a future where out-of-control blazes are the new norm, they are going to need to make massive investments in forest management and become a model state for rapidly reducing greenhouse gases.
While the state has adopted a coherent policy for the former, it is still struggling with the latter, mostly because it lacks the will to embrace progressive revenue sources that could secure the necessary investments in a greener future.
There is good news: In the past few years, the state has begun a concerted effort to improve its forest management and its response to wildfires.
In 2021, lawmakers passed HB 1168, which allocated $500 million over the next eight years to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to implement its 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan of Central and Eastern Washington.
The funding not only supported greater resources for firefighters — a request that Lands Commissioner Hllary Franz had been making for years — but also prioritized long term forest health. The DNR’s twenty year Strategic Plan called for the repair of 1.25 million acres of Washington’s forest, while acknowledging that more than 2.7 million acres are considered unhealthy, including being vulnerable to wildfires.
As of October 31st, 2022, DNR, along with its partners, has already treated 500,000 acres across central and eastern Washington.
The bad news is the state has yet to meaningfully reduce climate damaging emissions. Washington does have a reputation for taking the climate crisis seriously, but recent history demonstrates we have struggled to rise to meet the moment. In 2019, the state released 102.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which was not only a 7% increase from 2018, but the most since 2007. It also was 9% higher than the emission targets set by the state. A considerable contribution to this increase was the state’s electricity sector.
From 2018 to 2019, emissions from electricity increased by 5.4 million metric tons. Essentially, weather variability — extremely cold and rainy winters matched with exceptionally hot and dry summers — meant that people were using more electricity to stay comfortable in their homes.
The state’s strategy for clean energy deployment left Washington vulnerable to backsliding. Instead of relying on a technology-neutral position that focuses on supporting previously existing public institutions, Washington’s legislators have tended to favor climate policies that are technology specific, piecemeal, and largely dependent on the consumption patterns of individual consumers.
As an example, consider the state’s emphasis on private solar panels.
For years, Washington has provided a sales tax exemption for solar energy systems, including personal rooftop solar panels, and net metering that allows individual solar producers to sell their energy back to the grid. Unfortunately, these incentives have only had a marginal impact on our clean energy production.
After years of experimentation, it is time to admit that piecing together a solar-powered utopia from a million individual actors has failed.
Instead, more emphasis should be placed on increasing the supply of clean energy available to utilities. By far, the most significant public energy institution in the state is the consortium Energy Northwest.
Originally named the Washington Public Power Supply System, Energy Northwest was the product of a decade of activism from rural populists and urban progressives, specifically from Washington State Grange. Currently, the consortium provides energy to twenty-eight public power utilities, including twenty-three of the state’s twenty-nine public utility districts, all at low prices.
With a significant clean energy portfolio that includes nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar, Energy Northwest delivers nearly 1,300 megawatts of power throughout the state, and it could do much more if given the needed resources.
In addition to supporting the state’s public utilities, Washington will also need to make massive investments in its infrastructure. The warming climate is likely to yield more extreme weather. To prepare for this future, Washington will not only need to repair its damaged infrastructure but make additional investments to fortify it. In 2019, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Washington’s infrastructure a grade of “C-.” Red flagged areas include drinking water infrastructure, roads, public transit, and wastewater.
Stormwater infrastructure received a near failing grade.
The bad shape of Washington’s roads and lack of investment in transit is worrying, since the transportation sector is our largest source of emissions.
Transportation infrastructure is intimately connected to the state’s housing shortage. The denser an urban area, the easier it is for people to adopt alternative forms of transportation — such as walking, biking, and the utilization of public buses and trains. Unfortunately, years of misguided development policies have locked the state in a car-centric planning mindset.
Washington is moving away from the sprawl model, but challenges lay ahead. In the next twenty years, the state is going to need to responsibly build 1.1 million units of housing to just keep up with anticipated population growth.
The bottom line is that to effectively deal with climate damage, Washington must make considerable investments in clean energy, infrastructure, transportation, and housing. This won’t be easy, but there are solutions available.
In addition to balancing its tax code, Washington has the option of creating a public bank to hold the revenue the state collects. Then, using the full faith and credit of the state, the state could make loans to fund variety of social needs.
The idea might seem radical, but there are already examples of it working.
Washington has experimented with policies that have come close to public banking. In 1997, Washington was one of several states that participated in the Department of Transportation’s State Infrastructure Banks (SIB) to fund transportation infrastructure. With capitalization of $1.5 million from the federal government, Washington set up a revolving loan fund to allocate investments to roads and highways. Similarly, in 2013, the legislators created a Clean Energy Fund (CEF), which — like SIB — operates as a revolving lender.
Throughout its history, Washington’s CEF has loaned nearly $150 million and supported more than 5,000 energy projects.
These policies are encouraging, but they suffer from two major shortfalls.
First, they are painfully undercapitalized. The amount of money needed to solve Washington’s problems needs to be in the billions, not millions. Second, revolving loans can direct money to needed areas, but unlike an actual bank they do not expand the money supply by lending out against deposits. For a genuine public bank, Washington should look to the successes in other states.
Several states — including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont — have all had state owned public banks in their history. Currently, North Dakota is the only state in the country that has a public bank, and it is a major pillar of the state’s economy, with lending practices that support economic development and disaster relief.
Last year, BND had $10.2 billion in assets, maintained a loan portfolio of $3.2 billion, and made $191.2 million in profit. However, unlike a private bank, its surpluses are plowed back into the state’s economy.
During the most recent legislative session, Senator Patty Kuderer (D‑48th District: Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, the Points communities) introduced SB 5509, legislation to create a public infrastructure bank for Washington’s local, municipal, and tribal governments. While the bill would not duplicate the model North Dakota uses, it could lead to a strong public banking sector in Washington.
SB 5509 was heard in the Senate Committee on Business, Financial Services, Gaming & Trade on January 31st, 2023. It was scheduled for executive action in February, but failed to receive the necessary votes to advance, due to the opposition of Democratic Senator Mark Mullet (D‑5th District: East King County).
Mullet and Kuderer are each now seeking statewide office. Mullet is running for governor and Kuderer is running for insurance commissioner. Mullet’s position in the Senate is also up in 2024, which means he must forgo a Senate reelection bid in order to pursue his gubernatorial ambitions. In just a year and a half, the chief Democratic opponent of public banking in the Legislature could be out of office.
If Washington is going to deal seriously with the impacts of global warming, including making the necessary investments throughout the state, then it should embrace the promise and potential of public banking. Otherwise, residents of the state will likely face a much harsher future, both economically and ecologically.
The reality that Washington’s leaders need to face, which ought be felt as intensely as the heat from the state’s wildfires, is that the Earth is only going to respond to our actions. Rhetoric won’t be enough. Our deeds must match our words if future generations are to inherit a habitable planet.
About the author
Marco Rosaire Rossi is the executive director for Washingtonians for Public Banking and an adjunct professor in political science at Cascadia Community College. He received a PhD in political science from the University of Illinois-Chicago and author of the book “Politics for the 99%.” He currently lives in Tacoma, Washington.