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.

That in part has lead Washington to rank second in its rates of electric vehicle adoption and renewable energy generation — in each category trailing its West Coast cousin California.

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.”


— Could this massive aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert help solve California’s water problem? The question of whether to tap a massive aquifer beneath California’s Mojave Desert is a decades-old conundrum that’s been revived in the state and by the Trump administration. “The debate will help resolve whether private enterprise can effectively manage a public necessity in a state where who gets water and where it originates endures as the most volatile political issue,” The Post’s Scott Wilson reports.

Since 1997, publicly-traded water company Cadiz has been looking to tap the roughly Rhode-Island sized Fenner Basin aquifer that’s beneath a part of its property within the Mojave Trails National Monument. After his election, Trump’s transition team listed Cadiz high on its list of priority “emergency and national security projects.” The company’s chief executive said the project won’t solve the state’s water crisis will be “certainly part of the solution.” “The opposition has argued that the Cadiz plan would threaten fragile desert springs and deplete the groundwater far faster than seasonal rain and snow can replenish it, threatening flora and rare wildlife.” Still, hurdles remain for the project, like a legislative effort to slow it down, but “if Cadiz can clear those obstacles, the project could be up and running within a year.”

— How rising seas affect North Carolina farmland: The seawater rising as a result of climate change is causing ocean salt to contaminate previously fertile fields in North Carolina, and scientists are just starting to examine how the change will impact agriculture, The Post’s Sarah Kaplan reports. “If farmers in coastal areas have any hope of protecting their land — and their livelihoods — the first step is to disentangle the complex web of causes that can send ocean water seeping into the ground beneath their feet,” she writes in a dispatch from Middletown, N.C. “Though it’s known that saltwater intrusion is linked to sea-level rise caused by climate change, scientists aren’t certain exactly how salt winds up in farmers’ fields. One hypothesis is that strong winds may blow salt water from the sound into the canals and ditches that crisscross the county, which then leak into the soil. Another possibility is that the salt was left behind by storm-surge events and simply takes a long time to wash away.”

— Spring is nowhere to be found: Much of the continental United States has recently been cold, wet and stormy, The Post’s Joel Achenbach reports, and there’s been no sign of the “meteorological spring” that weather forecasters say begins on March 1.


— A lingering leak: As the longest offshore oil spill in the country’s history nears its 15th year and the federal government prepares a plan to contain it, the company responsible for the spill, Taylor Energy, is pushing back against the effort in court. “Taylor Energy of New Orleans recently filed four lawsuits against the Interior Department, U.S. Coast Guard and a private contractor to contest their assessment that the spill is catastrophic and to shut down plans to cap more than two dozen leaking wells,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. During oral arguments last week in Taylor Energy’s case against a private contractor hired by the Coast Guard to contain the spill, the judge asked why the company wants to stop the cleanup efforts. The company claims the government’s plan won’t work.

— Report finds widespread contamination at nation’s coal ash sites: The new findings from the Environmental Justice Project and Earthjustice show that 91 percent of the coal-fired power plants across the country have leaked toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, The Post’s Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis report. The plants have reported elevated levels of pollutants like arsenic, lithium, chromium and others, which in some cases were at higher levels than EPA thresholds. But Mufson and Dennis add it’s not clear from the report whether nearby drinking-water supplies have been contaminated since the companies don’t have to regularly test nearby drinking-water wells.

— The road ahead for Tesla: Elon Musk’s move to again lay off workers and close most of its stores is the third time the chief executive has made cuts to Tesla jobs since he announced last June that he would slash 9 percent of jobs, a “hard decision now so that we never have to do this again.” “Musk, 47, didn’t specify in his latest email to employees how many jobs will be impacted by the shift to online sales and said some workers will transition to other areas of the business,” Bloomberg reports. “He also wrote that he expects headcount will increase next year.”


 — Warren presses Wheeler: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to newly confirmed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, calling for more information about former lobbyists who are in top roles at the agency, including top air policy official Bill Wehrum and David Dunlap, an ex-Koch Industries official who now leads the Office of Research and Development. “When individuals like Mr. Dunlap and Mr. Wehrum are put into positions that provide them with the power to influence environmental policies and impact the lives of millions of Americans, it is clear that this Administration cares more about serving the fossil fuel industry than it does about the health and wellbeing of the American people,” the presidential candidate wrote in the Friday letter, Politico reports.

— Interior head reportedly approved funds to keep parks open during shutdown: Acting interior secretary David Bernhardt told the National Park Service director that he was authorized to use $252.9 million in reserved government funds to call back staff to help maintain national parks during the partial government shutdown, the Hill reports. Bernhardt sent a letter to Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, environment and related agencies, that was obtained by the Hill and explains that its “direction on January 5 outlined a plan to use the available fees at specific parks in a manner that was squarely within the specified purposes within [Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act] including maintaining restrooms and sanitation, providing trash collection, maintaining roads, operating campgrounds, conducting law enforcement and emergency operations, and staffing entrance gates as necessary to provide critical safety information.”


Coming Up

  • The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety holds a hearing on states’ role in protecting air quality on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the electricity sector and climate change on Tuesday.
  • Politico hosts an event on environmental sustainability on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a hearing on the policies and priorities of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the U.S. Geological Survey on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on highway infrastructure on Wednesday.
  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment holds a hearing on PFAS chemicals and their risks on Wednesday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on leadership in science and technology on Wednesday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the energy water nexus on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife holds an oversight hearing on threats to the North Atlantic Right Whale on Thursday.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies holds a hearing on energy workforce opportunities and challenges on Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a roundtable on issues related to public lands in the Western United States on Thursday.

— “My money would be on the spiders”: An encounter between an enormous tarantula and small opossum was captured on video, as The Post’s Lindsey Bever reports.