WASHINGTON — On November 7th, the morning after the 2018 midterm elections, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee sat in a hotel in the other Washington, the swampy one, red-eyed from a string of late-night TV appearances, picking at a plate of eggs and rehashing the huge night his party just had, its best showing in 36 years.
As the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee had spent much of the year traveling the country to stump and raise money for various candidates. The hustle paid off: Democrats flipped seven governorships, including high-profile victories in Nevada, Michigan and Wisconsin (adios, Scott Walker). Thirty-eight million people will now have a Democratic governor, he crowed.
As he flew from state to state, Inslee, 67, had another aim in mind. Everywhere he went, he set aside time to meet with people working on what he believes is the defining issue of our time: climate change. For more than a decade, first as a congressman and later as governor, Inslee has been a leading voice in American politics on the urgency of fighting climate change. He wrote a book, Apollo’s Fire, that argued for a massive mobilization of public and private investment to spark a wave of innovation and growth in clean energy on the scale of President John F. Kennedy’s space program. His home state of Washington is one of the nation’s leaders in promoting renewable energy and weaning off fossil fuels. Last year, he co-founded the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of states taking action on the climate front that formed after President Trump said he would pull the country out of the Paris treaty.
During his travels in 2018, Inslee met with environmental activists all over the country; executives at a renewable energy company in Chicago, engineers at a cutting-edge battery factory in Georgia and a solar-panel installer named Raúl in Florida. In October, he created a new political action committee, Vision PAC, for non-gubernatorial political work. From the outside, it looks like Inslee is building an army of climate-focused supporters for a future campaign of his own.
In an recent interview with Rolling Stone, Inslee did little to dispel that notion. He says it’s “absolutely imperative” that the Democratic Party put forward a climate candidate in the 2020 presidential race — and will not rule out a run of his own. “I believe it’s a potentially winning issue to run on,” he says, “and we need a candidate who will do that.” A condensed and edited version of the conversation follows.
How will you band together with these seven new Democratic governors, as well as existing ones, on the climate issue?
The Climate Alliance is the most obvious way to try to share policies that work, share our messaging, our mutual encouragement pact. It’s also been helpful to keep the world inspired.
The good news is no nation has followed Donald Trump off the cliff with climate change. Not a single one. We want to keep it that way. The message to the international community will be seeing seven new governors, all of whom understand climate change, all of whom see the economic growth potential, all of whom want or will be allied at least in the direction with the world to attack this beast. That’s an important message to the world.
A ballot measure to put in place a carbon tax was defeated back in your home state. What happened?
When the oil and gas industry spends $31, 32 million dollars to obfuscate about some of the complexities of an initiative, it makes for tough sledding. It’s more than maddening that they say they’re for a price on carbon, but then every time there is one, they spend $30 million dollars trying to defeat it.
But it certainly was not a statement that Washingtonians don’t want to act on climate change. I’m very confident we’re gonna do big things in the next session of legislature. We’re still in the planning stages, but we think that there are multiple tools in the tool shed. Cleaner grid. One-hundred-percent clean grid, potentially. Low-carbon fuel standard, potentially. Better building codes. Better incentive programs to help people get solar and electric cars. Continue to increase in our research and development. Climate change didn’t go away in the face of $30 million. We’re not going away either.
You’ve gone around the country meeting with climate activists, obviously for the work of electing Democratic governors, but it sounds like with an eye on something more.
I’ve enjoyed being DGA chair because I’ve met some great people, great candidates. I’m going to get seven new colleagues, and being able to say we were in this together and we came out victorious, it’s a good thing.
I’m not ruling out anything in 2020 at the moment. I do think that it is absolutely imperative that the Democratic Party put forth a candidate who will make climate change a principal, front-burner issue, rather than some peripheral back burner.
There doesn’t seem to be anyone in that vein right now.
The depth of the challenge, and the breadth of the economic opportunity inherent in this, really demand that. You can’t shilly-shally your way into defeating climate change. You’ve got to take it head-on, and you’ve got to campaign on it. You’ve got to propose a vision statement on how to do it, and you’ve got to make your candidacy a test case of that.
The party needs that. The nation needs that. We haven’t had that today, and I believe that the combination of the changes that people are having in their lives, in their daily lives — from hurricanes and forest fires to giant rains to mudslides — are making this a very tenable option.
And I believe it’s a potentially winning issue to run on. There’s evidence that’s the case. The young voters who we need to inspire to come vote, if you ask them, this is one of their top issues. We were just looking at a poll yesterday when they asked Iowa caucus-goers what their most important attribute was. The first was “Someone who would work with other people and get things done.”
The second was, we want somebody who will fight climate change. And the third was, we want somebody who will be dedicated to science and research-and-development for a high-tech vision.
The world isn’t going to succeed unless the United States is fully engaged, and that won’t happen until we have a president who’s willing to bring a vision to the country on how to defeat climate change. Our party needs to present that to the country. Whether that’s me or somebody else remains to be seen.
How do you talk about this issue and make it aspirational, something that galvanizes people?
We have a lot of great attributes as a nation, and when you think about our greatest attributes, they’re parallel and resonant with the things we have to do to defeat climate change. We are optimistic by nature, which we have to be if we’re going to be if we’re gonna defeat climate change. We are innovative by nature. We invent, we create, we build. This is in our DNA, and we have to be innovative if we’re going to defeat climate change. We are proud of our place in the world because we’ve led the world in inventing democracy and saving it from fascism. And we’re proud of ourselves for the things we’ve done. A man on the moon is not a small thing.
We’re a country that is always looking forward rather than tied to the futile concepts of the past, and we have to be forward thinking in this. We’re scientifically literate. And we love our kids. Now, we may not love our kids any more than Germans or Brazilians, but we do love our kids.
Those are all American attributes, and when I talk about it, I talk as much about those character value statements as I do about parts per million or pH levels of ocean acidification. This is not about talking about the level of acidity. It’s about talking about the level of our ambition, and the level of our commitment to our kids, and the level of our sense of optimism. We have to have a vision of the future rather than just a concern about the future. We’ve got to have a positive statement of a way forward rather than just a warning sign.
It feels like the discussion about climate change is more than a little defeatist.
We have to have more of a map on how to get to the top of Mount Everest, rather than a warning sign that there’s a crevasse somewhere. We’ve got to be more visionary and less providing warnings to people.
You alluded to JFK and the moonshot.
[It’s] the title of our book. [Inslee co-wrote Apollo’s Fire with clean-energy expert Bracken Hendricks.] There was a reason for that title to that book, and I do believe it’s accurate. Ernest Moniz, former secretary of energy under Obama, we were at dinner the other night. He agrees that we need really significant new R-and-D, as well as deployment of what we have today. Bill Gates, I think, shares that view.
Our R-and-D budget right now is so substandard to the challenge. I remember 10 years ago I realized that our research budget for one type of vehicle for the Army was, I think, bigger than the entire clean-energy research budget for the United States. And given the nature of this challenge, that’s a misprioritization. Not to diminish the need for military equipment, but this is a security threat as well. This is a national security issue.
The Pentagon has been pretty clear on that, too.
If you’re concerned about mass migration, this should be your top priority, because the thing that’s going to drive mass migration is desertification of the South, both in Africa and in the Western hemisphere. The military has done an assessment of the security risks of climate change. They believe it’s one of the central threats to national security because of the migration issue that we face, and chaos, and violence with collapsing countries. There are good suggestions that a lot of the violence in North Africa right now was precipitated by rising food prices, precipitated by desertification. So this is a national security issue as well, and there’s about 120 generals who’ve written to the president suggesting that. But I don’t come at it as a warning sign, as much as the route to the top.
The way to the moon.
We eventually are going to succeed, because as Churchill said, “Victory is the only option, because without victory there’s no survival, therefore it’s the only option.” That’s the way I look at this.