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Jay Inslee Isn’t Going Away

The Washington governor may be out of the 2020 race, but his ideas are shaping the future of climate policy

Jay Inslee in Bainbridge Island, January 2019.

Jay Inslee in Bainbridge Island, January 2019.

Annie Marie Musselman

Jay Inslee is no Greta Thunberg. The 68-year-old governor of Washington state is a founding father of the climate movement, a man who speaks with the wonky wisdom of experience, not the moral outrage of a 16-year-old girl who sees her future stolen by greedy and corrupt politicians. And whereas Thunberg has inspired millions of activists to take to the streets, Inslee never rose above two percent in the polls during his short-lived campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. But in the long run, Inslee’s contribution to fighting the climate crisis may turn out to be as important as Thunberg’s.

He was the first serious presidential candidate in history to make it the central theme of his campaign. His six-part climate plan is by far the most ambitious and thoughtful road map to solving the crisis that has ever been put forward by a presidential candidate. It not only forced other Democrats to up their climate game, but large parts of it were immediately borrowed by other candidates, including Elizabeth Warren. So even if Inslee’s presidential campaign was a failure, his larger campaign to push U.S. climate politics to a new level of sophistication and ambition was a raging success, providing the policy DNA for the next generation of climate leaders.

I don’t think anyone in the climate movement expected a 16-year-old girl to galvanize millions of people. How do you explain the power of Greta Thunberg?
It’s quite a unique occurrence, when you think about social movements. Has there ever been a moment where one person captured the whole world? Gandhi caught one subcontinent. You might argue that Nelson Mandela caught the world’s heart, changed the course of history. In some sense, Greta’s in that realm because the movement she started is worldwide; it’s organic; it is based on a high moral sense of justice and a combination of undeniable, useful morality coupled with a sense of rage, which is justified and understandable. It’s a unique moment. The world is in peril. And being saved by children is maybe not such a bad thing.

I think the message of moral indignation is not only justified but necessary to the moment. And it’s, to some degree, been a missing element of a generational responsibility. I’m a member of the Woodstock generation, and we would like our generation to be known for more than just one incredible weekend of rock, but rather that we didn’t destroy our grandkids’ future.

You mentioned Greta’s moral outrage. Former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres argues that self-interest — economic benefit — is a better tool to inspire change.
Well, I don’t believe they’re mutually exclusive. I wrote a book about the economic benefits of this 10, 12 years ago. I’m now standing arm in arm with kids like Greta. I consider myself the oldest climate striker in the country.

Some activists admit privately that President Trump is the best thing that’s happened to the climate movement because his moronic views and obvious corruption by the fossil-fuel industry have galvanized so many people to take action. Do you buy that argument?
Well, I am genetically incapable of attaching the word “best” to Donald Trump in any circumstances at any time. I really don’t share that view because I just think the urgency of the science is what’s galvanizing. If you look at the oceans report that came out [in September, from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], it was a bombshell that revealed the catastrophic consequences of ocean acidification and temperature changes. And that’s what’s really galvanizing this movement. So, no, I would not describe any benefit to his presidency whatsoever.

Let’s talk about the Green New Deal. There is a lot of debate about how broad or narrow the agenda should be. The Green New Deal includes environmental justice, health care for all, full employment. If the central goal is to get to zero carbon by 2050, is it smart to be pushing forward an agenda that’s festooned with many, many other things? I mean, the politics of any one of these issues is incredibly fraught.
I think that’s a fictional debate. It’s clear we want to embrace environmental justice throughout these systems. I’ve been pleased that candidates have been embracing some of the things I had originally proposed, to embed an idea that you’re not going to perpetuate income inequality. You’re going to look for ways to reduce that as you’re going about this revolution [to cut carbon]. I mean, if you look at Elizabeth Warren, who has now embraced the very concrete, certifiable guarantees of reducing fossil-fuel usage, there’s nothing in her plan that would create any such schism, or hardship, or is being overly broad. To me, that’s right on the money.

Seven in 10 registered voters support government action to address climate change. You made the climate crisis the central issue in your campaign, but you weren’t polling above two percent. What do you think about that reality gap between the 70 percent and the two percent?
I don’t believe that my electoral results are a reflection on the issue. I just simply didn’t have the horsepower or the dollars to introduce myself to the public, even on this issue. So you can’t reach a conclusion that people didn’t like my climate plan. They just didn’t know who the heck I was. And I just didn’t have enough capacity to communicate. That’s the real story of the campaign.

Climate change plays very well with progressive voters in California and Massachusetts and places like that. But the general election is likely to be won or lost in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, big fossil-fuel and industrial states. How does the Democratic candidate talk about the climate crisis in places like that?
Well, the same way. This is a jobs message. It’s a jobs message in Washington, where I just dedicated one of the biggest biofuel refinery operations, in the little town of Roosevelt, Washington. In Bellingham, I recently visited the largest manufacturer of solar panels in North America. These are jobs. So this is something you can argue across the Midwest.

And this is a very rapidly moving political dynamic. I’ve seen things switch in a heartbeat. It was true with marriage equality, and I think we’re reaching the tipping point on this issue as well. Because every time there’s a new hurricane, or fires, or floods — and every time we have a new [sustainable] industry and every time a neighbor gets an electric car — this thing is moving forward. As Wayne Gretzky said, “Don’t skate where the puck is, skate where the puck is going.”

Now that you’re out of the race, who’s the best climate candidate?
Well, quite a number of them have embraced portions of what I had proposed, and that’s gratifying. I think they all have — not all, but quite a number of them — upped their game from when they started their campaigns, and that’s great for the party and the country. The progress we’ve made in the Democratic internal discussion, that’s really good news.

I’m particularly impressed by Senator Warren’s embrace of the idea that we have to have regulatory caps on a sector-by-sector basis [transportation, electricity, etc.]. I think her plan recognizes, as mine did, that the most necessary and effective tool at our disposal is sector-by-sector caps on carbon dioxide and particular kinds of usage of particular kinds of fuels.

If there’s a Democratic administration in 2021, do we need a Cabinet-level post on climate, a climate czar?
The administrative goal for the next president is to make sure that every agency has climate as a central part of its portfolio. And I’m not sure a czar is the best way to do that. I will say that the more important part of this is to inculcate into every agency this basic mission statement. This has to be a central tenet of performance. The next president needs to expect the secretary of agriculture to help farmers increase carbon sequestration of crops. The secretary of defense needs to find ways to get more electrical vehicles into the military. The secretary of transportation has to look for ways to decarbonize our transportation system.

To get anything done in Washington, you need some level of bipartisanship. How do you build that around climate, when you have a tribal atmosphere in Washington? Right now, there is zero common ground on climate.
Get rid of the filibuster [a yes vote from at least 60 senators for legislation to pass, as opposed to a simple majority vote]. It’s pretty easy. You get a majority vote in two chambers and a visionary president, and it gets done. The filibuster has created this image that the country has to be paralyzed until the last Republican in Alabama signs off on a deal, and that’s just not the way the system was built. We need to have a democracy that can act in the face of life-threatening peril. If you get rid of the filibuster, then the will of the majority will be followed, which is that we shouldn’t let ourselves perish worshiping at the altar of oil-and-gas special interests.

The second thing I would say is that more and more Republican citizens are now asking for action on climate change. It just has not reached the political elected class. We are developing a more unified tribe, which is a tribe of Homo sapiens in America. And more and more Republicans are joining that effort. But the word hasn’t gotten to their politicians because they’re still answering to special interests and lobbyists.

The more I think about this, the more I understand this challenge as a lack of imagination, in two ways. One, some people can’t imagine a world that is as degraded as science tells us it’s going to be. They have trouble imagining a world without coral reefs, or a way to grow grapes in California; they can’t imagine that. But more importantly, they can’t imagine a world where we are driving electric cars, where we are powering the grid with a combination of renewable energy and have much more energy-efficient homes.

We have done this before, with the mobilization for World War II. We have reorganized our economy. We have built new technologies. We have reoriented the kind of vehicles that we produce. We made 70 jeeps by 1941. We made 640,000 by 1945. Don’t tell me we can’t transition to electric cars.

I understand the World War II analogy, but the other reality about climate politics is that it’s always getting pushed out of the foreground by some seemingly more urgent crisis, whether it’s a school shooting or immigration or impeachment. If a Democrat wins in 2020, he or she is going to have a lot of stuff on their plate. How do you make sure that climate is at the top?
I think that we need to not be paralyzed by the scope of the entire task. It’s like the guy who was climbing a mountain and fell over a cliff. The guy fell 150 feet and shattered his femurs and pelvis and everything. He had to crawl, like, five miles on his elbows. What he learned was the only way he had a chance was to say to himself, “Look, I’m not even thinking about getting to that tent five miles from here. All I’m going to do is, I’m going to try to get to that rock.”

And I think that’s a metaphor for what we need to do here, which is, we’ve got to pick one action we can do today or in the next month and do that — get to the next rock. And that’ll keep you from being paralyzed by the enormity of this. If you take that action and put that on an equal footing with your immediate goals with impeachment or whatever else, we’ll get there just like he did.

Except to cut carbon pollution in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050 is going to take more rapid motion than just crawling along on our elbows.
Listen, I think it’s important not to be dissuaded by the difficulty of the task. I mean, yeah, it’s a tall mountain we’ve got to climb. But you do it one step at a time.

So what’s the next rock?
November 2020. Democrats need to win the presidency. And I feel good about [the party] being in a position to do that.

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