Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Want to Fight Climate Change? Experience What We’re Fighting For

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This op-ed reflects the opinions of Gov. Jay Inslee (WA).

My first interaction with an orca whale took place when I was 5 years old. I was fishing on a boat with my dad in the San Juan Islands, a place known for some of the most breathtaking water views in the country. The fog circled our boat like it does most Washington mornings. It was quiet.

Suddenly, an unearthly sound enveloped us—I heard a deep whoosh that sounded like a giant creature breathing. I asked my dad what it was. He said the fog was too dense to tell but he imagined it could be a killer whale.

He was right. The orca started to glide next to our boat. I felt its sound vibrate deeply in my chest and it swam around our boat two or three times. To my delight, I watched its black dorsal fin rise out of the water like an apparition. The fin was almost 6 feet tall. As a young boy, I was impressed—the fin was taller than me.

That was the first time I connected to a life force bigger than myself. When I heard that orca breathe, my reverence for the wild truly began.

My memorable moments with nature stretch throughout my entire life. My dad was a teacher and led Student Conservation Association groups in the summer, something I fondly remember taking part in. My dad took children from all over the country up into the Washington mountains to do trail and shelter work. I took my wife, Trudi, water skiing on Lake Sammamish for our first date in 1968. We raised our sons to appreciate the beauty of our state and spent years kayaking, cross-country skiing and fishing together. Now, we teach our grandkids the importance of connecting with the outdoors. Outdoor experiences are constantly in demand in Washington, especially around our more than 100 state parks and state-park properties. I joke that I want a governor-override button on the state park reservation system for cabins at Cama Beach just so I can get in. But even I can’t get a reservation there.

Gov. Jay Inslee on a beach in Washington

Gov. Jay Inslee walks on a Bainbridge Island beach in 2018. (Photo Courtesy: Inslee family)

What resonates with me about the outdoors is that it refreshes the senses. It heals. There’s something about fresh air that makes me feel optimistic and connected. And as long as you’re wearing a good hard-shell jacket, being outside on a rainy Washington day is better than being inside. You’re connected to the rest of life when you’re outside.

Part of our state government’s responsibility is to develop and foster great outdoor recreation opportunities. But the question I think about every day is whether or not the ravages of climate change will propel us into a time when we will have nothing left to connect to outside.

When my grandkids reach my age, what glaciers will we have left? What animals will be extinct? What months will prove too hot or smoky to go outside? Will snow no longer top the peak of Crystal Mountain? The world knows Washington state for its lush beauty and unique outdoor experiences. You can sea kayak in Puget Sound. You can hike through the rainforest at Olympic National Park. You can explore the geography of the Ice Age floods in Central Washington, dig clams in Long Beach under a costal night sky that highlights the Milky Way, and see the northern lights if you’re lucky. Washington has it all and we must work to make sure we always have it.

But we know it’s difficult to convince people to take climate change action if they haven’t experienced the natural world. How do you tell someone we need to put a price on carbon when they’ve never hiked a trail to Mount Ellinor or enjoyed the view at one of our coastal state parks?

To keep our state healthy, we need to keep outdoor experiences a priority. We need to develop our land wisely. And we need to understand that in a growing economy, we can’t do things the way we always have and expect to keep the same outdoor opportunities. We’ve made such an incredible impact on the landscape here. But today, more people travel farther to get to work. And wilderness areas have dwindled significantly over the past decades. That makes it harder to experience something as simple as a hike.

We need climate policy that directly protects the outdoor experience and the health of Washingtonians. As governor, fighting climate change drives many of my priorities. Earlier this year, I signed the most progressive clean energy bill package in the nation. Washington state is passing legislation that invests in alternate renewable energy sources and creating clean transportation technology. We’ll keep fighting for clean fuel standards so we can lower our carbon emissions and minimize harm to our oceans as ocean acidification threatens them. States are leading the nation in climate action, despite an absence of federal leadership and attempts by the current administration to roll back many environmental protections.

The chance of losing our greatest natural places must motivate us to act. It’s up to us to not only care and upkeep the land we fiercely love—we must also intentionally create new ways to protect our wildest places from climate threats. Only then, will our efforts matter to current and future generations.

We must protect what we love. We must protect what we value. And that doesn’t happen accidentally. It requires action. It’s a choice.

That’s why we must experience what we may lose. We must connect to the world around us. Only then, will we understand the power of connecting to something greater than ourselves.

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