The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jay Inslee wants to be the climate change president. His record shows what a tough sell that issue could be.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) speaks in March with victims of last year’s Woolsey wildfire in the Seminole Springs mobile home park, west of Los Angeles. (Philip Cheung/For The Washington Post)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee lives in a house on a hill that looks over the southernmost finger of Puget Sound, a stretch of inland seawater that naturalist John Muir found so stunning in its scenery when he visited in the 19th century that he felt it was enough “to satisfy the lover of wild beauty through a whole life.”

Inslee’s perch is good habitat for an environmentalist. In the fresh air under Mount Rainier, his Washington is less swamp and more wetland — a bright blue state that has chosen Democrats in the past eight presidential elections. 

Bureaucrats at the state capitol, next to the governor’s mansion, lunch at the Orca Eats taco truck, next to a stand promoting “eco-conscious cutlery” made from avocado pits. Even the lone anti-vaccine protester driving around the capitol grounds on a recent day with a sign accusing Inslee of “political sabotage media collusion treason” was doing it in a highly fuel-efficient sedan. 

And yet, Inslee’s long quest to transform nature-loving sentiment into climate change legislation has been akin to a grim march through the desert. The man who wants to be America’s first climate change president has seen firsthand the difficulties of putting in place policies to slow the warming of the globe.

Inslee’s path so far suggests that even a seasoned politician and environmentalist will face a thorny tangle of resistance to any effort to wean the American economy off fossil fuels. Inslee says that the planet demands such changes and that great economic opportunities lie along the way. 

“There’s nothing better than a long slog to get to the summit,” Inslee said. 

He will need that optimism to carry him forward in a crowded presidential field where other Democratic hopefuls have so far garnered more attention. Despite his decades-long political career and his stature as one of two governors officially in the race, he sits near the bottom of the pack in national polls, with the support of about 1 percent of voters.

He gained some national prominence two years ago when his state sued the Trump administration to block the ban on visitors from some Muslim-majority countries, establishing his reputation as an antagonist to the president.

Over the years, he has established himself as a climate expert and clean-energy advocate — an Al Gore-style environmental champion with less name recognition. Inslee’s book calling for a Kennedy-esque moonshot mission to decarbonize the American economy was published a dozen years before other Democrats proposed their Green New Deal. 

But his long record has been marked with more climate defeats than victories. Over his six years as governor, the push by Inslee and other environmentalists to reduce emissions by taxing carbon has repeatedly fallen short, defeated by Republicans in the state legislature and voters who feared higher gas prices. His attempt to cap pollutants by executive order was blocked by a judge and is now under deliberation at the state Supreme Court. 

Even in environmental Eden, the politics of climate change are a grind.

“Despite our green ethic, we politically have not had the clearest path towards big wins in quite some time,” said Mo Mc­Broom, director of government relations at the Washington field office of the Nature Conservancy. Inslee “has not been successful in every instance. But it’s all about the longer-term game of building momentum for action.” 

Last month, with the help of a sizable Democratic majority in the state legislature and a change in tactics to avoid new taxes, Inslee had a breakthrough. The legislature passed several bills that take a step-by-step approach to greening the state’s utility companies, buildings and appliances.  

Inslee says these legislative wins are important for campaign momentum and to show a record of progress. During his first major policy announcement as a presidential candidate this month , Inslee proposed a climate approach for the United States modeled on the work he’s done in Washington state. By 2030, he wants the nation’s utilities weaned off coal — which generated 28 percent of the country’s energy last year — and all new cars and trucks to be running on battery power or renewable fuels. On Thursday, he proposed federal spending of $3 trillion over the next 10 years to create millions of clean-energy jobs.  

For the political climate, these are confused times. A man who mocks global warming on cold days lives in the White House. President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement at a time when the United Nations warns of dire consequences if warming trends aren’t reversed in coming years. 

In other ways, there’s more momentum to tackle the issue than ever before. Polls show that a growing majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and the harm it causes. Young and liberal voters are energized by ambitious calls to action. Candidates beyond Inslee — such as former vice president Joe Biden and former congressman Beto O’Rourke — are saying global warming is the gravest threat the country faces.

'We can change our path'

The preoccupations — and lesser-known talents — of Jay Inslee are on display in his sitting room in Olympia. The walls are decorated with landscapes he painted of snow-capped mountains, polar bears, icebergs — all that’s cold and might one day be lost. 

Along with his wife of 46 years, Trudi, he writes and illustrates children’s books each year for his three grandchildren, full of animals in their natural habitats. 

The one signed politician photo is of a man on a like-minded mission: former vice president Al Gore. 

Inslee, the oldest of three boys, grew up in Seattle and developed his appreciation of the outdoors by running around in it: “Hiking and clamming and rowing boats and skiing,” as he put it. His father, a biology teacher and basketball coach, and his mother, a retail clerk at Sears and Nordstrom, spent summers leading high schoolers from the Student Conservation Association to clear trails and plant trees on Mount Rainier, a 14,000-foot peak that Inslee would later scale in his mid-50s.

Inslee sees climate change as the uber issue — the problem that surrounds and unites all others — and one that requires the country’s undivided attention. In the flow of Guatemalans to the U.S.-Mexico border, he sees climate refugees escaping drought. Wildfire smoke drifting across Western states represents public health threats from pulmonary disease and asthma. He launched his campaign at a solar panel installation company in Seattle, a place to talk about the jobs of the future. On the trail, he’s toured flooded homes in Iowa and visited fire survivors in California, voters who have seen changing climate realities firsthand. 

“No political consultant is telling him to lead with climate,” said KC Golden, a longtime climate advocate in the Pacific Northwest who has known Inslee for many years. “He does it because he thinks it’s the most important issue.”  

During college at the University of Washington, Inslee visited Sweden as part of the first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment — a trip he credits with stoking his interest in clean energy. He became a lawyer in eastern Washington and won a seat in the state legislature before joining Congress in 1993. 

During the Iraq War years, and before the Texas fracking boom, Inslee often warned about the dangers of dependence on foreign oil and pushed for a transition to clean energy. In an op-ed in 2005, when he introduced the ultimately unsuccessful New Apollo Energy Act — to offer some $50 billion in federal loan guarantees for clean-energy projects — Inslee argued, as he does now, that there were jobs waiting in a switch to wind, solar and other energy sources. 

“There is a sad irony in the fact that humans are now relying on energy from fossilized dinosaurs and vegetation, which died most likely as a result of climate change, to such a great extent that we are altering the nature of our own atmosphere,” Inslee wrote. “But we can change our path through optimism and ingenuity — our country has a history of taking on tough challenges and triumphing.”

His subsequent book, “Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy,” co-written with Bracken Hendricks and published in 2007, echoed similar themes, calling for an overhaul of the economy and highlighting early tinkerers with solar panels and hybrid cars, as well as entrepreneurs prepping for the post-oil era. 

“A huge takeaway of the book is how much stuff hasn’t moved,” said Hendricks, now an adviser on Inslee’s campaign. “We’ve been saying for 20 years that we’ve really got to move in the next 10 years. And over the intervening years, the data’s coming in worse and more extreme.”  

Inslee said his presidential run is about what will be left of the natural world for future generations. He motioned to the children’s books arrayed on a coffee table. 

“I got those three grandkids right there, and I know scientifically that they will have a very degraded state to live in if we don’t succeed here,” he said. “The forests are burning down. The waters are so acidified we can’t grow baby oysters here right now. The snow levels are changing. And it’s just going to get so much worse during our lifetime.

“And so I made a decision,” he said. “I decided I want to look at them on my deathbed and say I did everything I could. That’s what I’m doing. That’s why I’m running for president.” 

At long last, a win

After midnight on April 29, shortly after the 105-day legislative session drew to a close, Inslee strode to the lectern in a crowded conference room in Olympia. 

“This truly has been an epic legislative session of unprecedented scope and dimension of achievements,” Inslee, charged with enthusiasm, told the crowd. “There is a time to be humble. And this is not one of them.” 

Inslee was also undoubtedly relieved. 

In his seventh year as governor, he had notched his first major legislative victories on climate change. The bills that passed — to entirely phase out the use of coal by the state’s utilities by 2025 and to make buildings and appliances more energy efficient — helped correct an underwhelming record for a politician who wants to bring his climate fight to the White House. 

“Governor Inslee is a climate champion through and through, but he does not have the victories in the legislature that are commensurate with how passionate he is on the issue,” Gregg Small, executive director of Climate Solutions, an advocacy group, had said before the end of the session, when the bills were still in doubt.  

For much of Inslee’s tenure, Republicans controlled the state Senate. But even rural and moderate Democrats swatted down some of his earlier climate efforts. On several occasions, the headlining climate proposals that Inslee pushed — such as a 2015 bill to create a cap-and-trade system like the one in California or a 2018 ballot initiative to have a carbon tax like that used by his northern neighbor, British Columbia — failed to materialize. 

In some years, Inslee’s climate goals were sacrificed for other priorities. His desire to set a low-carbon standard for fuels turned into a bargaining chip he chose to give up to pass a big transportation package in 2015. That fuel standard was one of the key climate bills that failed again in this year’s session. 

“Just because Washington is left of center on a lot of issues doesn’t mean that this is easy,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), one of Inslee’s environmental allies in the legislature. “I don’t think we would be passing bills of this magnitude if we didn’t have a governor who was prioritizing and shepherding these things through the process at every step of the way.” 

Inslee and others cite the Republican majority and staunch opposition by the oil industry as key obstacles to his climate goals. The 2018 carbon tax ballot measure drew record spending by the oil industry, which paid $31 million to convince residents that the tax was a bad idea and would raise gas prices, according to state campaign finance data. 

“My district is the energy provider to the state,” said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, a Republican from the northern town of Ferndale, near the Canadian border. 

Ericksen, a Trump supporter and a fierce opponent of Inslee’s climate agenda, cited two oil refineries, five gas-fired turbines, two dams that provide power for Seattle and gas pipelines coming in from Canada — all of which provide “solid, middle-class jobs.” 

“I think that Washington state has been very successful over the past six years economically, and I think that’s because Jay Inslee’s policies have failed, not because Jay Inslee has managed to get his agenda accomplished,” Ericksen said in an office decorated with Trump campaign hats. “When we had the Republican majority in the Senate, we were the West Coast backstop able to block quite a bit of the bad ideas that he was putting forward that would have a negative impact on Washington state’s economy and have absolutely zero impact on global climate.” 

Voters resoundingly rejected the 2018 carbon tax. Some feared rising gas prices, and others criticized how a governor-appointed panel would be responsible for spending the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The ballot initiative lost in 36 of the state’s 39 counties.  

A profound shift to clean energy — changing the way Americans live and their reliance on oil and gas — represents an “existential threat to the fossil-fuel industry,” said Golden, the climate activist.  

“I don’t think that Democrats have shown up with the kind of determination and courage that it takes to overcome the fossil-fuel industry,” Golden said. “Jay Inslee is like the one guy in the political arena who shows up for that fight day in and day out, and guess what — sometimes he doesn’t win.” 

After last year’s painful loss, Inslee and other environmentalists had to regroup. Instead of a carbon tax, they pushed bills that would tighten energy-efficiency standards across different sectors of the economy, such as buildings, appliances and electricity generation. With expanded Democratic majorities in the legislature, as well as grudging acceptance from utility companies and some other former opponents, several bills passed. 

Washington is still projected to miss future emissions targets set by state law, after the failure of the low-carbon-fuels bill. But the wins help make Inslee’s state one of the leaders in addressing climate change. 

“These are victories that have not come cheap,” he said. “They’re things I’ve been working on for literally decades.”