Jay Inslee Wants to Be the First Climate President. Is America Ready?
On a recent Sunday morning, Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state, paid a visit to the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was part of a group of governors who had come to meet with EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, the face and leader of President Trump’s all-out assault on Barack Obama’s environmental legacy.
In a blue plastic folder tucked under Inslee’s arm was a summary of the latest National Climate Assessment, the fourth in a series of reports by the government’s best scientists that distilled what we know about the causes and outcomes of climate change. When he got a chance to speak, Inslee confronted Wheeler about some of the report’s most dire predictions — a trillion dollars’ worth of coastal property and infrastructure threatened by rising seas and storms, extreme heat leading to $160 billion in lost wages, as many as tens of thousands of new deaths each year due to air pollution.
“These are very dire consequences,” Inslee says he told Wheeler, “but as far as I can tell, this amount of damage is not enough to motivate you to do anything about it. How many dead people will it take before you decide to do something about climate change?”
Wheeler responded by blaming Democrats, Inslee says, and the conversation went downhill from there. (An EPA spokesman confirmed the exchange.) But Washington, D.C.’s intransigence on the existential issue of our time is something Inslee’s long accustomed to. Before he was elected governor in 2012, he served 15 years in the House of Representatives and earned a reputation as one of the fiercest climate warriors on Capitol Hill. He was for the Green New Deal before the Green New Deal existed, introducing a sweeping bill in 2005 to cap greenhouse-gas emissions, wean America off fossil fuels and scale up funding for clean-energy technologies. He was one of the earliest and loudest voices condemning the denialism of the Republican Party. But shaming only gets you so far. “Having expended considerable energy trying to persuade them and cajole them and inspire them, that has fallen on deaf ears, like talking to a rock,” he told me recently over drinks in downtown D.C. “The only solution is to remove them.”
So Jay Inslee is running for president. His vision, he tells Rolling Stone, is an administration organized around the climate crisis, an entire federal government working in unison to decarbonize the economy and help save the planet. No candidate has his record on the issue, and none of them have said nearly enough about it, he says. “A lot of these candidates want to check the box,” he tells me. But one sentence in their campaign-launch events doesn’t solve this problem. “This has to be the number-one priority of the United States,” he insists. “Every agency has to be on board, and it has to take priority over everything else we do. You have to build a mandate for this during the campaign, and you have to express a willingness to spend your political capital to get this done. I think too many other candidates are going to say, ‘I’m for the Green New Deal, and now I’m done.’ That just doesn’t cut it.”
For someone who’s spent his career working on the climate, Inslee is the most unlikely of things: an optimist. Climate change is the most complex problem humans have ever faced, but it’s also an opportunity to reinvent the economy and create millions of jobs while ensuring a livable planet for future generations. “This is a time of great peril,” he says. “But it’s also a time of great promise.”
On paper, Inslee’s résumé should make progressive voters swoon. As a congressman, he voted against the Iraq War, the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the bank bailout after the 2008 financial crash. As governor, he’s signed into law the first state net-neutrality bill, declared a moratorium on the death penalty, proposed a public option for health care and unveiled a plan to pardon thousands of low-level drug offenders. But he enters the race with a modest war chest, little name recognition (one recent survey found that 24 percent of his own state’s voters either didn’t know enough about him or didn’t have an opinion) and a paltry online presence (his Twitter account has 27,000 followers; Sen. Kamala Harris’ has 2.4 million) — and at a time when many Democratic voters are looking askance at white male leadership.
But Inslee’s optimism extends to the belief that his climate message will resonate with voters of all ages, races and ethnicities. “It’s not an issue, it’s the issue,” former Secretary of State John Kerry says, “and he’s been as good at communicating it as he’s been at governing on it.” Inslee likes to cite a nationwide poll by a left-leaning think tank that found overwhelming Democratic support for the Green New Deal and a 2018 survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers that found 90 percent were interested in a candidate who was a leader on climate change. On the numbers alone, he’s right: The public’s understanding of the issue has never been greater. Americans know the science, and they want action. But are they ready for a climate president?
IN LATE January, I boarded a ferry in downtown Seattle that whisked me across Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island, a pastoral, well-to-do community of 25,000. The Inslees have lived on Bainbridge for two decades in a red brick house near the water. An electric Chevy Bolt sits in the driveway, and a painted sign that says “Clam Happy” welcomes guests. Inslee meets me on the back porch and launches into a history of the region, beginning with the native Suquamish tribe and the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. The Seattle skyline cuts an impressive figure across the Sound and, beyond that, the white peak of Mount Rainier rises above the landscape.
Inslee takes me inside to meet Trudi, his wife of 46 years. Sketches of Teddy Roosevelt and Albert Einstein hang on the wall. I notice a copy of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, an alternate history in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president, on an end table. He had started Roth’s book after reading It Can’t Happen Here, the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel about the rise of authoritarianism in America, which had appeared on bestseller lists after Trump’s election.
Light reading aside, Inslee is not the brooding type. He’s got a lively, twitchy presence, a toe always tapping or a knee bouncing, and comes off refreshingly unguarded for a career politician. He introduces himself as “Jay,” never once in our interviews asked to go off-the-record and didn’t insulate himself with the typical entourage of aides. A lifelong basketball junkie — he played in the semi-regular pickup game hosted by Obama, who half-jokingly called him “kind of a hack” on the court — Inslee has a soft spot for sports metaphors and one-line zingers of a dad-joke caliber.
We take our coffees to the living room, where a recent pastel drawing of the Olympic Mountains he’d made hangs over the fireplace. Inslee grew up across the Sound in the Seattle area, between the Olympics to the west and the Cascades to the east. His parents, a high-school teacher and a Sears Roebuck clerk, volunteered as trail guides, often taking Jay, one of three sons, with them on their hikes. After law school, he and Trudi moved to an alfalfa farm in Selah, outside of Yakima in central Washington, where he worked on contract for the city prosecuting small-time criminals. In 1988, after getting involved in a local school-funding fight, he ran for the state Legislature and became the first Democrat to represent the district in 16 years.
That same year, NASA scientist James Hansen delivered his now-famous testimony before the U.S. Senate about rising greenhouse gases warming the planet. Inslee began attending a small monthly meeting where scientists, activists and politicians discussed the increasingly dire body of climate science. “His mind was blown by the implications of it,” says K.C. Golden, a Seattle-based climate activist and friend of Inslee’s who went to the meetings. The sheer magnitude of the problem, and the imbalance between powerful industries poisoning the air and water of those without power, spoke to him on some deeper level. “He gets really angry about situations where those without privilege are run over by those” that have it, says Brian Bonlender, Inslee’s former chief of staff. “It’s part of who he is and how he thinks.” In 1992, Inslee ran for an open seat in Washington’s fourth congressional district and won on a platform that included reducing carbon emissions — an unheard-of move at the time.
His first stint in Congress lasted just one term. He cast a critical yes vote in 1994 to pass the assault-weapons ban — a vote he says cost him his seat. In his Republican-leaning district, the debate over the ban had reached the point where protesters picketed his office and flooded his staffers with angry calls about how the ban would lead to a national gun registry or a new-world order run by the United Nations. “It was the right vote then; it’s the right vote now,” he says today. “I knew it was going to be lights out, but I vote on conviction, so I did.”
Inslee first ran for governor in 1996 but finished fifth in the blanket primary. Two years later, after he and Trudi and their three boys had moved to Bainbridge Island, he decided to challenge Rep. Rick White, a Republican, for a House seat that had elected only one other Democrat in the previous 46 years, but Inslee ended up beating White handily.
After his return to Congress, Inslee became a leader on climate change, and he was more than willing to goad his Democratic and Republican colleagues into action. Invited to testify at a 2003 Senate hearing about the climate, he began his remarks by observing that Congress’ upper chamber had “been caught in the act of leadership,” earning a laugh from the committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain. But Inslee could be scathing in his assessment of his fellow lawmakers who refused to act. “At times, he was incredibly impatient of people who didn’t understand him,” says Chris Shays, a former Republican congressman from Connecticut who worked with Inslee on climate legislation. “He was aghast that he even had to make the argument that global warming was real and a threat.”
Up until then, the discussion was largely a scientific one: parts-per-million and hockey-stick graphs. On his flights to and from Seattle and in the evenings in his shared apartment across the street from the Supreme Court, he began conceptualizing a new way of talking about the climate fight. With the science settled, defeating climate change was now a matter of character, of will, and the only way out of the crisis was a massive, society-wide mobilization on par with the Apollo program that took us to the moon. “We don’t need an incremental increase,” Inslee and co-author Bracken Hendricks wrote in their 2008 book, Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy. “We need the equivalent of a new space program.”
Inslee introduced multiple versions of the New Apollo Energy Act, a bill to accelerate the pace of development of renewable energies, phase out tax breaks for oil and gas companies and set ambitious targets for reducing the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Van Jones, the CNN host who served as President Obama’s green-jobs czar, said that a common refrain in White House meetings about the clean-energy economy was, “What would a Jay Inslee think about this?” But Inslee’s bill never got a vote, and the 2009 cap-and-trade bill he worked so hard to pass died in the Senate.
Fed up with Washington, D.C., Inslee decided in 2011 to run for governor of the other Washington. He resigned from his congressional seat mid-term so that he could focus on campaigning on a “clean-energy revolution” in his home state. He came from behind to beat a popular Republican by a three-point margin and has tried to fulfill that pledge, with mixed success. The state already had one of the cleanest electric grids and energy portfolios in the nation, but until late 2017, Republicans controlled one chamber of the state Legislature and blocked much of his climate agenda.
Still, he has approved new incentives to buy electric cars and set aside more than $120 million for investments in clean tech, and he ordered his state’s ecology department to draft aggressive new limits on greenhouse emissions, which were adopted in 2016. (The rule is currently being challenged in court.) But a ballot measure to apply a statewide carbon tax lost last year after the oil and gas industry spent nearly $31 million to defeat it. “The best compliment you can give someone is that they have the guts to get caught trying,” says former Secretary Kerry. “Jay did a lot of things that are important, like the clean-energy fund, but he also fought the big fight. You’re not serious on this issue if you aren’t in the arena to price carbon, period. Anything else is half-assing it. Not Jay.”
But the 2018 elections saw Inslee and the Democrats win big majorities in the Legislature. They’re now considering a package of climate-related bills that would slash emissions almost as much as the carbon tax. “Legislators used to be pretty scared of talking about climate,” says state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democrat and Inslee ally. But Inslee’s focus on the climate and his own electoral victories have “made legislators realize, ‘This is something I can flex a little bit on.’ I’m seeing that more this year than ever before.”
INSLEE DOESN’T shy away from confrontation, and the years spent listening to Republicans deny the existence of the planet’s most pressing issue have disabused him of the benefits of bipartisan decorum. A year ago, he shared a few thoughts with President Trump during a televised meeting with dozens of governors at the White House. He told Trump that any plan to arm teachers to defend against active shooters was dangerous and ill-conceived, and then offered the president a bit of advice: “We need a little less tweeting, a little more listening.”
When I ask him about the exchange, Inslee describes Trump as a “petulant third-grader” with “his little arms folded and his little orange cheeks bulged.” He doesn’t regret calling out the president. “I like confronting insecure bullies,” he says.
Almost from the day Trump took office, Inslee has cast himself as an antidote to Trumpism, a foil to the 45th president. Washington was the first state to sue to stop the administration’s Muslim travel ban. On the day Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement in June 2017, Inslee, Gov. Jerry Brown of California and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York unveiled the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of cities and states leading the resistance to Trump’s denial and reassuring the rest of the world that the U.S. was still in the fight. Today, 22 states representing half the U.S. population and 55 percent of the country’s GDP have joined. “The good news,” Inslee says, “is no nation has followed Donald Trump off the cliff of climate change.”
It was in 2018 that Inslee began to think about whether the next step in his crusade was a 2020 run. As the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, he spent the year stumping for candidates like Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. He told me that his travels around the country not only connected him with grassroots activists working on climate change, but also gave him the confidence that he could campaign in states other than Washington. “When I was in Iowa, I was at an old seed mill, and I met some local Democrats,” he says. “I just felt at home, like I was back in Selah, where I spent 20 years in a red, Republican, agricultural town of 3,000.”
When we met for drinks in D.C. last month, I asked Inslee for his theory about how to beat Trump. His response echoed the way he talks about the climate. “We are fundamentally different,” he says of himself and the president. “I believe in a growth-oriented, expansionist, innovative, creative, confident America. He has a fearful pessimistic view that we’re not smart enough to defeat climate change; therefore, we have to ignore science. His are the politics of fear and division, and my politics are ones of hope and inclusion.”
Inslee is betting that his vision can win, and that a United States government united around the cause of climate change and a speedy transition to a new economy fueled by solar and wind power and producing low-emission vehicles will galvanize voters young and old, black, brown and white. “If you care about the economy, this is for you, because it’s the best job-creation opportunity we have,” he says. “If you care about health care, this is for you, because it’s one of the biggest health threats that we face. It’s national security, obviously. It’s how we use trade policies.”
That transition from a fossil-fuel-powered economy to a clean one must be a “just transition,” he adds, so that communities of color disproportionately harmed by polluted air or lead-poisoned water get targeted relief and access to retraining programs and clean-energy jobs. He praises the Green New Deal framework introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey for fueling public interest and raising the level of ambition for possible solutions to the crisis. Inslee plans to release his own platform in the coming months. “I will have a comprehensive policy document that will bore you to tears with many pages of exquisitely comprehensive policies,” he says, “many of which will mirror what we’re doing in the state of Washington. That will probably be in a lot more detail than what you’ve seen out of the paper that’s floating around with the Green New Deal.”
I once asked him how he stayed optimistic given that he’s spent his life working on one of the most difficult, depressing issues there is. Almost every single thing that’s worth doing, he replied, is hard and takes longer than you’d like. Fighting climate change meets those conditions, he said, but so did suffrage, civil rights, Social Security, Medicare. “We’re not the first generation to have a hard slog. We’re just one of many,” he says. “And any advance has a common timeline, which is you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you lose. And then you win. And after you win, it sticks.”