Business, governmental and environmental leaders from Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia met at the U.S.-Canada border this week to plan the next steps in the quest to become the world’s first sustainable mega-region.
The Cascadia 2050 Vision conference was led by former Washington state governor Chris Gregoire, the CEO of Challenge Seattle and the co-chair of the steering committee for the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, a cross-border initiative that brings together leaders from Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia.
Gregoire joins us on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast to discuss key takeaways from the event, the difficult nature of the climate challenge, and some of the recent innovations and funding initiatives that make the group optimistic about achieving the Cascadia region’s long-term environmental goals.
“Mother Nature’s not going to allow us any more time,” she says. “We have got to get on this. And I’m very hopeful.”
Listen below, and continue reading for our notes from the discussion.
There were 14 actions proposed at this conference. Key takeaways?
- Gregoire said the group has been focusing on areas where real returns and progress can be achieved using the mega-region’s skills and assets, most notably innovation and talent. There have been “unbelievable advancements in technology,” Gregoire said.
- Examples cited at the conference included the rise of electric vehicles, next-generation nuclear energy, green hydrogen energy, and emerging approaches to providing clean energy for industrial applications.
- At the same time, with the Inflation Reduction Act, new funding is being made available to states and local regions in the United States. In Canada, the Infrastructure Bank is playing a similar role.
- One example on the immediate horizon: more charging stations to reduce the psychological barriers to electric vehicle ownership. “I think we’re on the verge of having what we call the electric highway, that hopefully will take us from Canada through California,” Gregoire said.
- Another example: using artificial intelligence and satellite images for early detection and prevention of wildfires.
What does it mean to establish the world’s first sustainable mega-region, how will it happen, and what are the long-term implications? Is it doable?
- Gregoire: All of us are suffering from issues such as a lack of affordable housing, from traffic congestion. There’s also a need to meet the Paris Accord. It’s an economic issue, a human issue and a wildlife issue.
- “I think we have the potential and now all we have to do is execute to really be the first in the world,” Gregoire said. “With the talent that we have here, with the political leadership, with the innovation and creativity and technology that we have, there’s no reason why we can’t achieve this vision.”
- Bill Gates spoke at the conference, recognizing the immense challenges, but also expressing optimism about recent progress in technology and funding.
- Charlie Davis of Boston Consulting Group, who helped to lead the report prepared in advance of the conference, pointed out that the Cascadia region’s carbon emissions are a ratio of 3.5 relative to the global average.
- The challenge is daunting, but there’s reason for hope, Gregoire said, echoing Gates’ remarks.
A group of protesters outside the conference expressed concern that the Cascadia Innovation Corridor was meeting behind closed doors to carve up the resources of the carbon economy and set the agenda for Washington state without appropriate public scrutiny. What would you say to them?
- Elected public leaders ultimately are the ones who set policy, and while they engage and partner with the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, “we don’t write the regulations, they do,” Gregoire said.
- “But having served as an elected official, I can tell you, the public sector cannot alone do what needs to be done, if we’re to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. So I think it absolutely takes a public-private partnership, and all parties are willing,” Gregoire said.
- Successful public-private partnerships require the involvement of businesses, the public sector, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, environmentalists, and others.
- “We want this to work for every person who resides in the corridor,” Gregoire said. “So it’s about all of us working together. To that group, join us, be a part of it. We want to find solutions that everybody’s engaged and involved in, not standing on the sidelines or being critical, but engaged and involved, and we welcome that.”
- Gregoire said indigenous communities have been significantly impacted by climate change, including floods and wildfires, and their cultures are closely connected to natural resources, including water and fish.
- “Canada’s first nations have come together with a document that says the way in which we solve climate is, we all partner, we all work together,” Gregoire said. “We can learn a great deal by having them totally engaged.”
- Kris Klabsch Peters from the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington state has joined the Cascadia group’s steering committee, and co-chair Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia, is taking similar steps to engage with leaders of indigenous communities there.
How can Oregon, Washington and California work together on climate initiatives given the different nature of some of the challenges faced by California, most notably drought?
- There are many ways that the three states are connected on climate, and can work together, Gregoire said. The whole West Coast is linked on issues including energy, agriculture, and natural resources. Don’t forget that Eastern Washington state is also impacted by drought.
- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and British Columbia Premier John Horgan spoke at the conference Tuesday, appearing together virtually.
- Inslee has said Washington will join California in banning the sale of gas powered vehicles by 2035.
- Gov. Newsom is part of the Pacific Coast Collaborative, which got its start under Gregoire and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- In the past, there have been discussions about finding ways to share water between the Pacific Northwest and California in times of drought. “That is a topic we should continue to talk about,” Gregoire said.
- “You cannot, in this area, go as one state or one province and think you can solve it,” Gregoire said.
A big focus of the conference was high-speed rail, revisiting the notion of traveling from Seattle to Vancouver or Portland in as little as an hour. Are autonomous-electric vehicles an alternative solution?
- “I think there’s a place for autonomous vehicles, and I would encourage the technology to advance, but that cannot replace what is offered by high-speed ground transportation,” Gregoire said.
- High-speed rail received an allocation of more than $150 million in funding from Washington state this year, contingent on federal matching grants.
- The University of Washington is studying successes and failures in high-speed rail across the globe, to better understand what’s needed.
- Japan, Europe, and others offer models of safety, reliability and speed for high-speed rail. “It’s tested, tried, and true,” Gregoire said.
- The population of the Cascadia region (currently about 16 million people) is projected to grow by another 3 to 4 million people in the next few decades. It’s critical to think long-term, decades ahead, in transportation.
- “If we don’t think futuristically and prepare for this, we will find ourselves doing the same thing we’ve done in the past,” Gregoire said. “We need to think big, think bold, and get about the business of completing the job.”
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Podcast edited and produced by Curt Milton.