Making Waves Conversations: Governor Jay Inslee

Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, speaks with Governor Jay Inslee. In their conversation, they discuss the important connections between climate change, Puget Sound recovery, and environmental justice. This interview was recorded on March 8, 2021. 

Laura Blackmore: My name is Laura Blackmore and I’m the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency formed to lead our region’s collective effort to protect and restore Puget Sound. Our online magazine, Making Waves, features stories about the people working to protect and recover Puget Sound. For this issue of Making Waves, we’re holding a series of conversations with experts on themes related to Puget Sound recovery.

These conversations include wide-ranging discussions about climate change, infrastructure and the environment, and environmental justice. For this interview, I’m speaking with Governor Jay Inslee.

Governor Jay Inslee is currently serving his third term as governor. Prior to first being elected as governor in 2012, Governor Inslee served more than a dozen years in the U.S. Congress representing both sides of Washington state. He also served in the state House of Representatives. He started his career as a small-town lawyer, and he and his wife Trudi got involved in public service when they helped lead the effort to build a new public high school in Selah, Washington.

His leadership as governor includes combating climate change, promoting clean air and water, as well as protecting Washington’s orca and salmon populations.

Governor Inslee, thank you so much for joining us today. For our conversation, we’re going to talk about the many connections between climate change, Puget Sound recovery, and environmental justice.

Governor Inslee: Thank you. Thanks for your work, we like to make waves.

Laura Blackmore: Yay—exactly! For our conversation, we’re going to talk about the many connections between climate change, Puget Sound recovery, and environmental justice. Are you ready?

Governor Inslee: You bet.

Laura Blackmore: What linkages do you see between the future of Puget Sound recovery and the need to address climate change?

Governor Inslee: Well, you can’t have one without the other. We’re going to move heaven and earth to help with our local efforts on Puget Sound recovery. We’re going to remove culverts so that we can get more salmon habitat. We’re going to try to work to keep toxics out of our stormwater. We’re going to work on nearshore habitat recovery to restore our eelgrass and our kelp beds.

We’re going to try to do our thing, what we can, to protect our orcas from too much noise, which we know interferes with their hunting predatory behavior. We’re going to do all these local things that we are putting our shoulders to, and our hearts are very closely allied with volunteers working up and down the Salish Sea.

But we have to realize that there is a global problem that requires a solution if we’re going to ultimately save Puget Sound. And that is ocean acidification and water temperature threats to our Sound. Because we can succeed on culverts and nearshore habitat, we can succeed on acoustic protection and toxics protection for the orcas, but unless we prevent the ocean acidification which threatens the life cycle of so many shellfish and the critters that are the base of the food chain, all of this work can be for naught. We have to fight ocean acidification and water temperature issues, which really requires all of us to pitch in, all of humanity, to do our part, which we’re doing right now.

I’m very thrilled: we’ve got good bills in our legislature to attack carbon pollution, to have a clean fuel standard so consumers have cleaner fuels, so we don’t pollute out of our cars and buses. We can have a cap on carbon to fund some of these things. Really exciting time in Olympia right now to do what really needs to be done to save the heart of the Puget Sound.

Laura Blackmore: In what ways, building on that, would you like to see the federal government partner with Washington state to work on Puget Sound recovery and climate change mitigation and adaptation?

Governor Inslee: I’m excited on the federal level already, and we have a president who’s now put his political capital on the line to move the needle. And the kind of things that he’s leading the federal government to do, I’m very excited about. He’s taken some early executive action. He’s going to propose very significant investment in infrastructure, which can create clean energy jobs and simultaneously reduce carbon emissions that are attacking Puget Sound through ocean acidification and temperature change.

He’s going to do research and development that’s appropriate to continue the march of technological progress. He’s going to put people to work rehabbing our houses, and our office buildings so they don’t waste so much energy. I’m very excited about the progress the federal government is going to make. Now, we’ve got some handicaps: the filibuster is still an antiquated, antediluvian roadblock in the march of progress, but I’m confident that we’re going to get good leadership out of the White House.

We’ve got good friends that are in our delegation that are going to be slugging for us, our two senators. The vast majority of our House members are going to help us out on this. We’re going to have a great federal partner, but we can do some things they can’t do in the federal government. We need to attack carbon pollution locally, because there probably will be an inability to pass some of the measures that we know should be possible in Washington state, which may not be politically possible in Washington D.C.—again, because of the filibuster.

We need a low carbon fuel standard. We need a cap and invest system. We need to move on all the work we’re doing on culverts and nearshore habitat and orca protection and everything else. It will be a good partnership, but as always, Washington state needs to lead the nation. This is the natural position, which is for us to be in the lead.

Laura Blackmore: I couldn’t agree more. Governor, you have made environmental justice a key part of your climate policy package for the ’21–‘23 biennium. How do you see those connections between environmental justice work and ecosystem recovery evolving in the future?

Governor Inslee: Well, they go hand in hand, and this is both important for the success of this program—to develop support for it—and for fairness and equity, for Washingtonians to be able to enjoy our fair state. We have built in, in my proposed budget, dollars for our agencies, [Department of] Natural Resources, Department of Ecology, [Department of] Transportation, dollars to build into their planning process, so everything they do is looked at through the equity lens. Where do they put in recreation sites? How do you make your recreation sites more accessible to underserved populations?

We want all of our agencies to look at everything they do through an equity lens, including our natural resources agencies. Now, this is good for people—to give people more access to our natural resources—but it’s good to build political support for everything we’re doing as well. This has to be all hands on deck. That’s why we built into our budget process this effort. Now, we’re also starting an equity office. The first time we’re going to have an office of equity in our government that actually is full-time committed to this effort. And they will do what they can to make sure other agencies embed this throughout their planning processes.

Aerial photo of Bellingham, WA. Photo credit: Brandon Sawaya.

Laura Blackmore: Fantastic. We are looking forward to working with that new director and that new office. We’re very excited about it. We take environmental justice very seriously at the Partnership. Our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts—I’m very proud of. We have a group of committed staff that has done a tremendous amount of work, but we’re at the point where we need help from the state, so thank you very much for providing that leadership, Governor.

Governor Inslee: Well, I know you’ve done a good job emphasizing places where people can interact with our beautiful areas, not just on the far reaches of Cape Flattery, it’s in the Duwamish, close to where people live. It’s giving school children an opportunity to have a natural experience close to where they live and where their schools are. I know you’re dedicating yourself to that and that’s extremely important.

The reason is that once a child has an experience checking the acidity of a stream or spending a night in a sleeping bag, they never go back. They’re naturalists for life. Your emphasis on this to get more communities, BIPOC communities and otherwise, immigrant communities, to have these opportunities, it’s fundamental to the success of our mission.

Laura Blackmore: We look forward to working with you on that, in fact.

Governor Inslee: Good.

Laura Blackmore: Well, what do you think are the crucial next steps we need to take to address climate change risk and how can we do so in a way that’s equitable for all Washingtonians?

Governor Inslee: Well, we do have to respond to this risk that’s baked into the system, unfortunately. We are going to be experiencing climate change because of carbon that’s already been put into the atmosphere. In our planning, in our ambitions, in our goal setting, we have to be aware of that. For instance, on providing shade for our rivers, to keep water temperature low for our salmon, that has always been important but it is more important now because we know that there will be an increase in water temperatures because of the carbon that’s already been in the atmosphere.

We have to look through that lens of everything we do, of putting those integral metrics into our planning process, which means we have to be more aggressive, assertive, and rapid in our decision-making of everything we do. To reduce water temperature, to increase eelgrasses, to look for short-term things we can do to deal with acidification. There are some possibilities, research we’re looking at, to see if kelp and eelgrass can reduce acidity locally and the like.

So, to investigate those things, that’s what we might be able to do locally in the short term. I want to reiterate: we have to attack this at macro scale. We’ve got to get carbon out of the atmosphere.

When we started this, we thought it was the salvation that carbon would go into solution out of the atmosphere into our oceans—we thought that was a wonderful thing for 20 years. Until, all of a sudden, we realized that it’s making acidic conditions. And we have to realize we have to attack that beast where it lives, which is in our tailpipes, in our smokestacks. I just never want to lose sight of that. You can’t mitigate your way out of this problem—there’s just not enough trees to plant in the world to totally mitigate this as a solution. That’s why I’m dedicated for action this year in Olympia to stop carbon pollution at its source.

Laura Blackmore: For people who wonder how they can get involved with the work that needs to be done, to combat climate change, to stop ocean acidification, what would you recommend?

Governor Inslee: Well, first, go down and enjoy Puget Sound. Be heartened, be in touch with it. Put your toes in it—although be careful how you do it. I took my granddaughter down to the beach yesterday, and Trudi said, “Gee, she’s got her brand new sneakers on, don’t let them get wet.” I said, “No, no, I’ll be really careful.” Because I don’t want the parents to get mad that I wrecked the new sneakers they bought my granddaughter.

We went down there, and I was being really careful, and for about 10 seconds, I turned around to look at this driftwood I like, I turned around and she’s standing ankle-deep in Puget Sound. You’ve got to be a little careful when you take your kids down to the beach. I’m sure my son and daughter-in-law will forgive me over time—what’s a pair of sneakers when it comes to a kid?

Secondly, we would hope people could be active right now, today. Call your legislator, talk to your legislator, let them know what you think about this. This is a pivotal moment. The next several weeks are going to be very crucial in our state legislature to see if we can get these carbon reduction bills through.

Now, you can also talk to them about the budget, because we need budget support. I’ve asked the legislature to budget $726 million for culvert removal. We’ve got to remove these culverts so that salmon can get access to their ancestral grounds. That’s really important. Now, it’s also required by law—a judge has ordered the state of Washington to do this.

Ask them to help with nearshore habitat—I proposed $313 million in my budget for that. $450 million for water quality. $313 million for riparian and salmon projects.

There’s two things, that’s your phone call, your text message. Seeing legislators in the grocery store, politely ask them—while wearing your mask—to support these efforts. It could be really, really important. These next few days are critical, so I hope people will be engaged.

Laura Blackmore: What gives you hope when you think about the recovery work that we have to do in the next 10 to 20 years?

Governor Inslee: Well, what gives me hope is that we’re now at a tipping point where the strong majority of Washingtonians understand how much is at risk for the things they love. They understand this is a health issue for their children. They understand that kids with asthma are threatened by this fundamentally. This isn’t just about our love for salmon or our love for orca, it’s about our children, it’s a health issue. An increasing number of Washingtonians understand that, number one.

Number two, we have the ability to beat this monster. We know what we have to do. All we need is the will to do it. We have electric cars coming on. We have public transportation. We have new systems of making our homes more efficient, so we don’t waste energy. These things are available to us. It’s like we’ve got a hammer, all we’ve got to do is pick it up. That’s good news, we have what we need.

Third, we have nature, which is amazingly resilient. If you give her a chance, she’ll come back—look at the Elwha. We took those dams out and we’ve had an incredible rebirth of salmon, once we give nature a chance. Those things make me optimistic. We’ve got short-term things we can do in Olympia. We don’t have to wait 30 years; we can get things done this year in Olympia. This is a good year to be optimistic and active.

Laura Blackmore: Great. When it’s safe to do so, Governor, we’d love to take you out to the Middle Fork Nooksack and the Pilchuck River, where we took dams out this year, even during the COVID times.

Governor Inslee: Yes, we’re very excited about that. You’re pretty safe outside, so get outside.

Laura Blackmore: That’s true. Get outside, go see Puget Sound, go see rivers, put your feet in the water, just like you said. Exactly. Well, one final question for you, Governor. What’s the last thing that you read that you really enjoyed or that stuck with you?

Governor Inslee: Oh, the Places You’ll Go. My eight-year-old grandson, Chase, read it to me yesterday afternoon. He hadn’t read to me for a while and I was blown away by how well he’s reading, and, of course, that’s an inspirational tome. I know there’s some controversy about the author at the moment, but that does not diminish how powerful that book is in giving people inspiration to be adventurous. That was the last thing I read that I enjoyed. I’m reading a history now, George Vancouver’s explorations. He came and anchored off of Restoration Point [on Bainbridge Island] off the south end. I’m looking right at it, where he anchored in 1792. A tumultuous period in our history, but an interesting one.

Laura Blackmore: Thank you so much, Governor. We really appreciate the time that you’ve made to join us today. Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

Governor Inslee: Thank you very much.

Laura Blackmore: Thank you for the great work that you do for the state.

Governor Inslee: Thank you. Everybody go out and make some waves. It’s going to-

Laura Blackmore: We will.

Governor Inslee: Make some waves this year. Be well, be healthy.

Laura Blackmore: Thank you, Governor.

Governor Inslee: Go outside. Okay. See you later.

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Making Waves is the Puget Sound Partnership’s online magazine. Making Waves features stories from the people protecting and restoring Puget Sound.