Climate change is poised to be a big issue in the race for the Democratic nomination. But there hasn’t been a candidate who has made the issue the center of his or her pitch for president — until now.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee launched his bid for president Friday to address what he called in his first campaign video “the most urgent challenge of our time.”
While the crowded field for the Democratic nomination already includes five senators co-sponsoring the ambitious Green New Deal resolution, Inslee is prioritizing climate change to the exclusion of other issues. He said “climate change” or “global warming” in the video at least 10 times. It was the first, last and only issue he mentioned in his video announcement.
It's an issue Inslee has been passionate about as the governor of the other Washington since 2013. "We need to get something done. This is a moment of great peril but of also great promise, and it needs urgent action," he told The Energy 202 in an interview last month.
The twice-elected governor has built one of the nation’s longest political resumes on the issue of climate change with his efforts to transition the state off of fossil fuels. The League of Conservation Voters has hailed him as “our nation’s greenest governor.”
But his track record of success on those efforts, though, has been mixed — even in the true blue state like Washington. Inslee’s record shows both the promise and pitfalls of singularly focusing on an issue as difficult for voters to wrap their heads around — let alone actually tackle — as global warming.
Forged in his failures, Inslee sees his approach to climate change at once both aspirational and pragmatic. He frequently makes analogies to the fitful yet eventually triumphant effort to land a man on the moon in the 1960s.
“You have to be undaunted,” Inslee said in the interview. “The lessons of history is that every single major social advance we’ve made in our nation's history has taken years or decades, has taken many losses before we have eventual wins — and that's the nature of progress.”
With his focus on climate change, Inslee is trying to forge a new “lane” in the Democratic primary where previously there has never been one.
“Nobody until Inslee has flatly said, this is my issue,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Yet some polling from Leiserowitz’s group suggests there may finally be such an electoral lane in the Democratic Party. Last year, the Yale program found registered voters who identified as liberal Democrats listed environmental protection and global warming as their third and fourth most important issues out of 28 topics.
Even those who haven't always supported Inslee's efforts in the past acknowledge his commitment to the issue.
"It's not just fluff, and him just putting himself out there and separating himself from some of the other candidates," said Bill Dewey, senior director of public affairs of the family-owned Taylor Shellfish. "In my opinion, it's very consistent." A decade ago the Washington state-based company lost 75 percent of the oyster larvae critical to producing baby oysters due to the ocean absorbing more carbon dioxide. Still the firm stayed "neutral" on Inslee's carbon tax proposal in 2018.
As governor, Inslee was busy launching initiatives promoting the use of electric cars and ferries and pumping tens of millions of dollars into clean energy research. He led Democrats in the Washington State Legislature to pass renewable energy requirements for electric utilities.
But when it comes to renewable energy, Washington has a huge geographic advantage in its ability to produce hydropower with its many rivers. And Inslee’s biggest policy catch has eluded him.
That would be installing a price on the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which many economists say as the most cost-effective way to drive emissions of the most prevalent climate-warming gas.
Despite Washington’s leftward political tilt, twice voters there have rejected ballot initiatives imposing a statewide fee on carbon pollution. Similar proposals to place a price on carbon — either through a carbon fee or cap-and-trade scheme — have failed more than once in the state legislature.
So Inslee and Washington Democrats, even after gaining seats in the legislature in the 2018 election, have decided on a different tack. They are pursuing passage of a suite of five pieces of legislation that would set higher clean-fuel standards and boost the energy efficiency of buildings.
The aim of all that legislation is to reduce Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035. Inslee is confident that hodgepodge of bills has a better chance of success than the 2018 carbon tax ballot initiative — all while having “roughly equivalent” carbon reduction.
“These five tools have a better chance of passage, particularly on the heels of this initiative vote,” Inslee said. “So we made a very good strategic, sound and smart decision to pursue what will work.”
That kind of nimbleness, moving from one proposal to the next, may be necessary in Washington, D.C., which saw the high-profile failure to pass a cap-and-trade program early in President Obama's first term. Already Inslee is addressing the political hurdles by calling for an end to what tripped up that 2009 cap-and-trade bill: the Senate filibuster.
As Inslee announced his run Friday, the Washington State passed the biggest of those bills, which would seek to have the state eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2045.
"It's not just aspirational," said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D), the bill's sponsor. "Our bill is hands down the clearest, most direct pathway toward shutting down fossil fuel in our state." Carlyle added that Senate passage was his legislation's largest hurtle.
The question facing Inslee now as he departs for Iowa on Tuesday to tour a solar panel installation and meet local climate activists is how much that legacy will resonate with voters nationally.
Historically, voters have placed environmental concerns behind pocketbook issues like job creation. Indeed, Trump mocked Democrats' focus on the Green New Deal, which Inslee has praised, during a rambling two-hour speech Saturday.
"No planes, no energy — when the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric,” Trump told supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Then, looking up, he added: “Darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.”
But Inslee sees recent two trends in his favor going into 2020. First, Inslee hopes to convince voters that transitioning to lower-carbon sources of electricity and transportation is in fact an opportunity for job creation.
“He is so pessimistic; we’re the optimists in this debate. We know we can invent and create and build a clean energy economy,” Inslee told ABC News in response to Trump's speech. “We know we can do that because we’re doing it in my state.”
Second, Inslee said in his Post interview, is that “the peril has become more urgent and obvious.”
In the past two years alone, Inslee noted, a deluge of rainwater from Hurricane Harvey brough devastating flooding to Houston in 2017 and years of drought helped stoke massive western wildfires in 2018 that destroyed towns like Paradise, Calif., which Inslee visited earlier this year.
“This isn't just a fire. It was an apocalyptic feeling. This has actually been one of the challenges we have in this movement because you don't want to scare people into inaction,” Inslee said. “So sometimes it’s difficult to describe the nature of what we face.”
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- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a roundtable on issues related to public lands in the Western United States on Thursday.
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