Matt Driscoll

Inslee’s flip-flop on Tacoma LNG is exactly what the climate change crisis calls for

For politicians, flip-flops are typically to be avoided at all cost. And, no, I’m not talking about summer footwear, although, for the record, those aren’t great either.

Changing course, or changing one’s mind, can be a bad look. Justly, it leads journalists to highlight and question the change of heart. Sometimes unjustly, it can lead average observers to assume something untoward is afoot.

In the case of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, I’d suggest there’s probably a far less nefarious explanation.

The governor changed his mind. It happens.

Sometimes, a flip-flop — even one that has a political calculation to it — is exactly what the situation calls for.

Last week, Inslee, who is seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination of president, delivered a doozy — coming out hard against two fossil-fuel projects in the state.

In Tacoma, the news hit particularly close to home. While Inslee had previously been supportive of Puget Sound Energy’s massive liquefied natural gas project, currently under construction on the Tideflats, on Wednesday the governor reversed course in a big way.

“I cannot in good conscience support continued construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma,” Inslee said during a celebratory bill signing, also singling out a methanol production facility in Kalama for his scorn.

“The age of consequences is upon us,” Inslee said. “We have to act based on clear science.”

Any way you slice it, for Inslee the statements represented a sharp, 180-degree turn. For critics, they likely also produced fodder for ridicule. What we have here is a classic flip-flop, you see.

Gasp! Cue up the archival footage!

For Inslee, there’s also a political benefit in the move, even if it requires him to explain himself. Despite the seemingly long odds against him winning the Democratic nomination, Inslee is obviously banking on distinguishing himself as the unquestioned climate change candidate. At the very least, he seems intent on pushing the conversation.

To do that, milquetoast, middle-of-the-road policy proposals aren’t going to cut it. He has to lead, not play catchup.

There are signs that his climate change strategy is working — at least when it comes to differentiating himself from the ridiculously large field.

“Inslee is the only candidate in the race who is treating climate change the way the science says climate change should be treated: not as one issue among many, but as the overriding emergency of our age,” wrote Vox’s Ezra Klein this week.

While Klein was writing broadly, Inslee’s LNG reversal serves as a local example of this singular focus and his willingness to own it.

Political motivations aside, there’s also a less cynical conclusion to be drawn from Inslee’s LNG about-face, at least if we’re willing to give an office-seeking candidate the rare benefit of the doubt.

Faced with a growing climate crisis and a growing acknowledgment that liquid natural gas won’t provide the comfy, painless transition that a number of overly optimistic or naive Democratic politicians hoped it would, Inslee is changing his tune.

Good for him. Not only is this the right move, it’s one that’s long overdue for the Democratic Party.

Simply put, it’s no longer enough to be the only party willing to acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change.

Inslee and Democrats have to be equally willing to do something about it, which will require hard, sometimes uncomfortable stands, a distancing from the fossil-fuel industry — and, yes, occasionally a flip-flop.

“In the early days of both projects, I said they could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we transition to cleaner energy sources,” Inslee acknowledged last week, “but I am no longer convinced that locking in these multi-decadal infrastructure projects are sufficient to accomplishing what’s necessary.”

I’ll go a few steps farther: Projects like Tacoma’s LNG facility are not the future, they’re the past.

The sooner politicians like Inslee come around to this, the better.

And when they do?

They should be validated, not victimized by their previous soundbites.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.