A Republican And A Democrat Walk Into A Bar To Talk Climate Change

Feb 4, 2015

This congressional session could be a big one for climate change.
Democrats have introduced legislation on behalf of Governor Jay Inslee that would charge polluters for the CO2 emissions they release into the atmosphere.
Republicans are in control of the senate and have signaled that they’re not interested in working with the dems on the Governor’s climate legislation.
Is there any common ground?

Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) talks with Senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) after a committee meeting at the Washington State senate.
Credit Ashley Ahearn / Earthfix

Senator Doug Ericksen is a republican from Ferndale - that’s where several of the big oil refineries are in this state. He doesn’t see our CO2 emissions as a problem for the climate.
And Senator Kevin Ranker is a democrat from Orcas Island - a more liberal part of the state.
These guys don’t talk to one another unless they have to. And they certainly don’t get together for beers.

It took a lot of cajoling and carefully crafted emails, to get to this moment. Sort of like setting up a blind date where neither party is all that interested.
Senator Ranker’s at the bar, waiting. Senator Ericksen, the republican, shows up next and we sit down.
Doug Ericksen: I’ll have a NW pale ale. That’s what I’ll do. Put it on Senator Ranker’s account.
Kevin Ranker: [laughs.] I’ll buy you a beer.
I let them crack some jokes, feel one another out a bit. I figure we’ll start with one thing they have in common - the life of a politician, far from his home district - before we get into the bigger, more controversial, stuff. These guys are both from northwestern Washington - a long ways from here - so they live in Olympia when congress is in session.
AHEARN ON TAPE: What’s the hardest part of your job, just as people who live away from their homes?
Senator Ranker - the democrat - answers first.
Kevin Ranker: "The hardest part for me is being away from my little girl and my wife. It just… it sucks. And sometimes, you know, it flies by, and other times, like this week, when my little girl was sick and I wasn’t there, it hits, hard."
AHEARN on TAPE: How old is she?
Kevin Ranker: She’s 6.
AHEARN on TAPE: How old are your kids, Sen?
Doug Ericksen: They are 14 and 12.
The funny part about coming down here is this is the time of year when we breed all our goats to be kidding right now.
Kevin Ranker: How many goats do you have?
Doug Ericksen: Oh about 20. I don’t know how many now, don’t know how many lived through the birthing process.
We have 2 bottle babies that are being fed inside with the bottle right now, so that takes up all my wife’s time, and then she has to work for a living because somebody has to work in the family.
Kevin Ranker: and she’s single momming it
Doug Ericksen: yeah.
Ok, enough about kids - human or goat. Let’s get down to it. I finish my drink (to get my nerve up) take my empty glass and put it down, boom, right in the middle of the table.
Ahearn on tape: So this glass is the elephant in the room. Guess what it is?
Senator Ranker takes a guess.
Kevin Ranker: I don’t know, politics, oil, climate what?
You said we weren’t going to talk politics!
AHEARN ON TAPE: This isn’t politics. THis is a question a lot of voters are thinking about. I want it to be acknowledged that that’s something that you guys ideologically think very differently about and I want to know where there’s common ground. That’s why we’re here tonight. Right?
Senator Ericksen, the republican, answers first. Environmentalists have criticized him for taking campaign contributions from the oil companies in his district.
But to be honest, when Doug Ericksen talks about climate change, it’s clear that he just doesn’t see our CO2 emissions as a big problem, regardless of which companies back him.
Doug Ericksen: "I think one of the funny parts is people always try to pit it as Doug Ericksen vs Jay Inslee on climate change. I don’t consider myself to be a carbon warrior. I don’t consider myself to be a defender of fossil fuels. I consider myself to be a person who wants to protect the economy as we move forward, while we’re moving into new technology to solve problems."
Senator Ranker, the democrat, is squirming across the table.
Kevin Ranker: "Carbon emissions are not good. Can we agree on that? They make our air dirty, our communities less healthy, and they’re contributing to climate change. That’s a big deal."
I’m watching Doug Ericksen. He’s listening, he seems amused, sort of smiling here and there, but he’s not really giving an inch.
Doug Ericksen: [laughs] "Carbon is a natural thing out there. I need carbon to grow my crops and for trees to live."
Kevin Ranker: "Yeah, but not at the level it is right now, right?"
Senator Ranker, the democrat, keeps pushing. He talks about shrinking snowpack, more intense wildfires, ocean acidification - basically, the consensus in the scientific community - that our CO2 emissions are changing the global climate and making life on earth more difficult.
Kevin Ranker: "So what I’m saying is there are economic impacts, community impacts, health impacts on Washington State, from greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. So why shouldn’t we, and isn’t it our obligation to do something about that and I think, you know what, I think the legislature could have a thoughtful conversation, even this year, about what actions should be taken."
Now, the Republicans are in control of the state senate and Doug Ericksen’s the chair of the Energy and Environment committee - so if any climate change bills get heard in the senate this session, it’ll be because he allows them to be heard.
Tonight there was no consensus on carbon legislation. But watching these two men interact, over beers, there were some subtle bridges being built. A few shared shared laughs here and there - You gotta start somewhere.
And maybe some of it will carry over into this legislative session. It’ll be an interesting one to watch.